August 28, 2008

The next generation of American schools

  • Schools are moving into malls, high-rises and even grocery stores to fit a wider range of needs
    Dull Olson Weekes Architects


    Every day in our communities, thousand of adults and children enter and use school buildings paid for with public tax dollars. We expect these facilities to provide 50 to 100 years of use with little reinvestment in an era of economic, educational and community change.

    No public project type in the United States is expected to last so long, accommodate so many different users and cost taxpayers so little. The emerging question though is, has this project type received the appropriate attention it needs?

    Enormous challenges face the modernization of existing schools or the design and construction of new school facilities. They are not simple buildings. Each is envisioned and shaped by hundreds of community members, teachers, architects, engineers and contractors. But with such broad interest and participation, the challenges looking forward are worthy of note:

    • In a dynamically changing world, are we considering what education will look like in the coming decades and the impact this will have on our existing and future learning environments?

    • Will we continue to envision and fund schools as we have for the past century?

    • Are new models and systems emerging that we should consider?

    • Should we continue to design and construct learning environments as we always have?

    The next 20 years

    Futurists 20 years ago projected that the way we work, learn and socialize would be substantially different by the year 2010. That has come to pass.

    Many people looking forward are projecting that the next 20 years will be substantially different than today. It is a topic of conversation at the local, regional and national level. Yet large segments of our student population are being left behind, unprepared for these coming changes.

    At the most basic level, it is represented in the test scores we are observing and the quantity of students who never complete high school. In this progressively changing world, many are asking: Are the places where our students learn and teachers teach adequate? Is there a relationship between how successful students are and the places where they go to school?

    The answers are complicated and leading educators and school designers are writing and speaking about the current process, which is resulting in 30-year-old ideas being utilized to address 21st-century challenges. Significant sums of money, in turn, are being allocated to new schools that adults would say are familiar to them and students find foreign to the world they are “learning into.”

    The American schoolhouse, as we know it, will not soon change, but new models are emerging. They are different, and in some cases, unfamiliar to us. They focus on student learning, realigning community resources to address the needs of the whole child, and residing in unfamiliar or nontraditional facilities.

    How students learn

    For decades, schools have been designed with teaching as the predominant determiner of how a school feels and looks. It was focused on individual space and specific needs of adults. Recently, leading school designers have looked at the needs of students. How do they learn? How does the design of space and place contribute to student learning?

    Focusing on how students learn is resulting in an increased variety of space and overall building capability. Today’s students are kinetic, hands-on, multitasking, social, creative and curious.

    Considering these characteristics leads to a less formal, more adaptable and agile environment in which all spaces allow multiple uses and capabilities. Merging decades of knowledge on the design of teaching spaces with emerging research on how students learn is resulting in environments best characterized as the “learning place”: a holistic environment that supports both the teacher and student.

    Nontraditional locations

    While the traditional school as we know it will continue to exist, public school districts, charter schools and private schools are beginning to look at nontraditional locations for a school.

    Driven by factors including increased needs for specialized educational programs, dwindling funding capabilities and the request for expanded educational options and opportunities, schools are being located in malls, high-rises, warehouses, grocery stores and other nontraditional locations.

    Educators are tailoring programs to specific educational goals that do not require comprehensive opportunities for all students such as like athletics, freeing them to occupy underutilized alternate places for school.

    Community learning centers

    There is an emerging recognition that in some cases the traditional single-use, single-site school is an obsolete and failing model.

    This is especially true in urban areas where school facilities are often deteriorating and high-challenge populations are often underserved. A new vision is emerging of multiuse and multi-located places for learning that integrate the community into the school and the school into the community, merging the neighborhood and the classroom.

    The first element of this emerging vision repositions the school facility itself as a new building type — a smaller hub that serves as a center for the community and acts not only as a gathering place for students, but also brings services and resources to families in the neighboring community. This concept is well-conceived as community learning centers, and has already been demonstrated as an effective solution in several communities nationwide.

    At the heart of this concept is the opportunity to provide space for other public activities that support learning, the whole child and greater neighborhood. Already there are examples all across the United States of Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, community clinics and city parks co-located with schools, thus creating a place that contributes to strengthened learning and supports the needs of a neighborhood.

    The economic and educational changes confronting us in the coming decades are significant. The design of educational environments, learning places, community learning centers and alternative places to learn are emerging strategies to address those changes.

    We know what we know. Therefore, the traditional school archetype we have duplicated for over a century will continue. But looking forward also requires us to suspend certainty and consider the next generation of schoolhouse — one that supports community and contributes to increased learning, wherever it may reside, whatever it may look like.

    John Weekes is a founding principal of Dull Olson Weekes Architects in Portland and a member of the National Leadership Group of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education.

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