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School Construction 2005

September 22, 2005

Small schools best prepared to teach the new '3 R's'

  • 'Rigor, relevance and relationships' are reshaping school design
    Architects of Achievement


    Growing consensus around the need to transform America's high schools has the potential to effect major change in school design.

    Over the next five years, school districts will spend over $120 billion on educational facilities. Education agencies will continue to focus on closing the achievement gap while national, state and local governments, in partnership with private foundations, will spend billions to support dynamic learning communities.

    Such investments provide a matchless opportunity to rethink conventional school design.

    We know what works: Schools focused on rigor (where all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work), relevance (where all students have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and goals) and relationships (where all students have adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve).

    Research and practice suggest that small schools best foster these new "3 R's."

    New teaching models

    Some of the most innovative and effective school designs stand in sharp contrast to the traditional layout of schools — the "cells and bells" model.

    The Truman Educational Complex in Federal Way consists of two schools that serve 102 students each. Instructional spaces within each are combined in an "open learning environment" where different group sizes are accommodated by areas of varying size and degrees of acoustical and visual privacy — small study rooms for groups up to six, advisory areas for learning teams of 18 and an open activity area.

    The advisory spaces, separated by partial-height walls, are situated in a radial arrangement from the light-filled collaborative gathering area. Moveable system furnishings and computers allow students to do individual and small group work. Multipurpose labs support inquiry and project-based learning. A commons area known as the great room supports community-building.

    Creative partnerships have expanded Truman's capacity. The local Boys and Girls Club funded a shared fitness facility allowing Truman to forego expenditure on gyms and fields. A federal Head Start grant provided an adjacent childcare facility. And students are able to take advantage of a neighboring city park.

    Truman's design reflects a growing belief that students learn better in learning environments with strong community supports.

    Using the new 3 R's as a foundational concept, Truman students meet in advisory teams with 17 other students and one teacher for four years (relationship). They spend up to two days a week with a mentor at a job site learning real-world skills, interacting with adults and completing projects germane to their futures (relevance). And after just two years serving the same challenged population, the school that rarely sent a student on to higher education can now boast that every member of its 2004 and 2005 graduating classes was accepted to college (rigor).

    Responding to change

    School districts combining aligned instructional systems with schools of choice are able to fashion a powerful improvement agenda for learners. For instance, the Federal Way Public Schools, focused on standards and literacy development, added to its portfolio of school options by opening an educational complex as it redesigned Truman.

    Todd Beamer High School opened in 2003 to serve 1,300 students in three distinct academies: Humanities and Arts Academy, Math/Science/Health Fitness Academy, and the Business and Industry Academy. The facility's flexible design easily allowed architectural adaptation this past summer for a fourth academy to be incorporated into the existing space.

    The signature of the Beamer campus is the fluidity with which it can respond to change. Planners tested the design against multiple scenarios to ensure the building had the capacity to adapt to evolving educational approaches.

    Structural, mechanical, and electrical systems were all designed to be adaptable to multiple spatial configurations, supported by operable walls, reconfigurable casework and movable storage systems. Administrative and counseling spaces are located within each academy while the library, health clinic, commons, food service, fitness and performing arts areas are shared among the facility's separate academies.

    Rethinking a large comprehensive high school to support smaller learning communities seems to be working at Beamer. Compared with 2004, Beamer's 2005 WASL scores increased by 14 percent in reading, 10 percent in writing, 12 percent in math and nine percent in science.

    Both Beamer and Truman are MacConnell Award finalists — the highest honor in school planning and design given by the Council of Education Facility Planners International.

    Lessons learned

    Small learning communities represent the most popular school design trend in recent years. Despite the challenging nature of the redesign work, several valuable lessons have been learned.

    When designing educational complexes to house multiple small schools — such as Beamer — discrete, contiguous space for each small learning community is crucial to each school's ability to foster a powerful school climate and feelings of connectedness.

    Bearing in mind circulation patterns and how to equitably share amenities, educational complexes are best designed as learning communities for 100-400 students that each include variable classrooms, seminar and work spaces, project and science labs, rest rooms, formal and informal gathering areas, and collaborative offices for teachers, administrators, and counselors.

    Truman illustrates the value of breaking down the traditional boundaries between the school building and the community. Doing so maximizes the benefit to students by providing applied learning opportunities and highly supportive, individualized or alternative options.

    Perhaps most essential is how the building and program complement one another to support the educational vision of the school. The core beliefs of a learning community should be reflected in the school's design. Good school designers understand that the building must allow students to:

    be engaged in active participation, exploration and research; struggle with complex problems and apply knowledge in real-world contexts; and produce quality work products and present them to real audiences.

    In order to better prepare all students, instruction and design must work together to provide challenging, relevant environments where all learners feel known and supported.

    Victoria Bergsagel founded and directs Architects of Achievement, a consulting group working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help educators and architects integrate design into school reform.

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