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School Construction 2004

August 12, 2004

Restoring order to the school-design process

  • 7 principles help Seattle schools put students first
    Seattle University

    Image courtesy of BLRB Architects
    Seattle Public Schools developed a set of principles to guide its school-design process. The resulting renovation plans for Garfield High School, designed by BLRB Architects, aim for an attractive, student-centered environment.

    A school construction or remodeling project can draw considerable and impassioned discussion.

    Since schools impact the community so directly — connecting with almost every family in some way and remaining part of the local landscape for many years — the number of stakeholders is vast.

    In my experience working with school design teams, I've seen everything from heated teacher protests to threats of bodily harm. (The latter concerned an endangered grove of oak trees.)

    Given these emotional issues, how does one rationally design a building that meets the academic needs of students while acknowledging other concerns?

    7 design principles

    To deal effectively with the issue, Seattle Public Schools in 2001 formed a design team — a group that included educators, administrators and architects — to research and identify characteristics of high-quality, high-achieving schools. The team decided upon seven guiding principles to serve as benchmarks for judging new school designs:

    • Learner-centered environment: The building is designed to place student needs first.

    • Personalized environment: Spaces are conducive to developing relationships with adults and peers.

    • Program adaptability: The design is flexible and can accommodate multiple instructional approaches.

    • Community connections: The building is inviting to the community and encourages involvement.

    • Aesthetics: The building is attractive, warm and appealing.

    • Safety: The design promotes safety.

    • Collaboration: The design promotes opportunities for everyone to collaborate.

    The principles are laid out more fully in the school-design process manual that was drafted by the design team. The manual now serves as a template for new Seattle Public Schools projects, and can be viewed online at http://www.seattleschools.org/area/facilities/DesignStandards/SchoolDesignManual.pdf/.

    Garfield High School

    Garfield High School utilizes three of the guiding principles in its three-story commons area near the main entrance: learner-centered environment, program adaptability and aesthetics.

    The commons will have daylight from the skylights above and serve multiple functions, including small performances, group work, individual tutoring, eating and gathering. The commons functions as the social heart of the school and links directly to the academic heart of the school, the library, via a set of two grand staircases.

    Learning communities

    The principles of personalized environment, safety and collaboration can be seen in both Cleveland High School and Garfield High School in the creation of several small learning communities.

    The small learning communities divide the school into manageable and welcoming areas for students. They create an intimate and friendly environment that promotes collaboration, safety, belonging, relationships and a sense of community.

    At Garfield, additional areas are set aside in the small learning community for joint use, small group work and teacher offices. To promote a sense of community and safety, each learning community has its own bathroom and a small commons area. More information about the Garfield High School design can be found at www.gsdt.net.


    As learner-centered environments, the classrooms at Garfield, South Shore and Beacon Hill Elementary also maximize daylighting.

    According to a study conducted by Heschong Mahone Group, students in classrooms with large window areas perform better on achievement tests than students who receive less daylight. The conclusion demonstrated a positive correlation between daylighting and achievement.

    Design and achievement

    Student academic achievement is definitely impacted by school design, so decisions concerning school design should not be made too lightly.

    There are a great many studies and experts to consult, which should help designers to avoid duplicating efforts and to focus resources wisely. Success also means educating the public on how school design influences learning, and helping all involved in the design process to prioritize.

    Lawrence Y. Matsuda, a retired Seattle Public Schools principal, is a visiting professor in the College of Education at Seattle University and an independent school facilities design consultant. LeAnne Agne, a Seattle University communications specialist, contributed to the article.

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