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August 20, 2015

A ‘third place’: where students can be themselves

  • Kids need spaces that aren’t strictly academic or focused on activities, where they can socialize and feel a sense of belonging.
    SRG Partnership


    Federal Way voters approved a capital levy in 2012 to replace Federal Way High School.

    The original building was constructed in 1929 as an elementary school. That building was eventually demolished and replaced by the current high school building in 1936.

    The structure evolved over time, with a collection of additions that occurred through 2001. Due to major deficiencies in the existing building’s performance and its inability to support evolving instructional needs, the school district decided that a new building for the school was the best and most cost-effective solution.

    The new high school, designed by SRG, will replace the aging facility with one on the same site that creates a sense of pride among students and the Federal Way community.

    Design goals

    Small-group rooms will be situated next to the library.

    The main commons will serve as the heart of the school.

    Images courtesy of SRG Partnership [enlarge]
    Classroom wings will have informal gathering spaces on each floor.

    The design team worked with stakeholders to create outstanding learning and activity spaces that will accommodate a diversity of uses for the entirety of the building’s 50-year service life. The resulting environments can be modified over time, allowing a sense of ownership and encouraging experimentation so that learning happens all the time and everywhere — not just in a classroom.

    Three fundamental principles guided the design process:

    • Connecting with history and culture. Honoring its history as the first institution of learning in the area, the building must support Federal Way Public Schools’ mission to educate a hugely diverse and changing population of students and prepare them for life after high school.

    • Placemaking. Federal Way High has been a significant place both for Federal Way students and the larger community since it was first built. The new building must continue to strengthen this role by creating a strong sense of place, both inside and out.

    • Flexibility. Change is constant, both day-to-day and long-term. Every day, varying needs depend on the building’s inherent flexibility; pedagogies change and community values evolve to seek different educational outcomes.

    In the face of inevitable change, the building must be able to meet the needs of the students, district and community for its lifetime of 50 years or longer. This expectation for change challenged the design team to establish a framework for describing the design problem without relying on assumptions or conventional school planning.

    So let’s look at the outcomes achieved by embracing these principles.

    A sense of ownership

    Federal Way Public Schools has been a leader in exploring and adopting pedagogies that are unconventional or unique, including the small-schools initiative, project-based learning, specialized STEM academies, and community-partnered and self-directed leaning typologies. Their current pedagogical model, Standards Based Education, is at the vanguard of public education.

    What is initially remarkable about FWHS may be its history in the formation of the school district and even the city. However, its diverse student body and the culture fostered by the high school staff and administration are the true stars.

    Design strategies for the new FWHS included giving students a sense of ownership, space to “see and be seen,” and expanding uses beyond the academic day in a way that provides safety and comfort — a home away from home.

    In his book “The Great Good Place” urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg demonstrated how and why “great good places” are essential to community and public life, arguing that what he calls “third places” are central to local democracy and community vitality. In the adult world, if your “first place” is home and your “second place” is work, then your “third place” is where you interact with others in between your first and second places.

    Third places have always been evident in engaged human societies. Think of the Roman Forum, open market, public park, local pub, coffee shop and bookstore. Third places are for sharing ideas and forming relationships.

    Learning everywhere

    Learning happens everywhere and in many ways. SRG’s design work in educational environments supports this paradigm shift by creating communities of human interaction that facilitate learning, both inside and outside the classroom.

    Pedagogical methods and teaching materials are important, but there is also a lens for success that is understood by the level of the kids’ happy and passionate engagement in learning and doing. It is evidenced by a spark of interest in individuals who want to know more: to learn how to learn, not only what to learn.

    The new facility is envisioned as a place where any and all modes of interacting in the school experience are encouraged. This creates an ebb and flow between academics, athletics, arts, theater, science, clubs and extracurricular activities, and allows each to be a place of importance in the school.

    What makes a third place

    A major program and planning element of FWHS is the idea of the third place. For students, if first place is their home environment (generally organized by family adults), and second place is their school setting of classrooms, labs, shops, studios, etc. (generally organized by school adults), then third places would be where they engage and interact with their peers and the greater community on their own terms (generally organized by themselves).

    Building the best spaces for academic pursuits and even for every specific extracurricular activity is not enough to foster a well-rounded educational experience. Comfortable and engaging in-between spaces provide an informal neutral ground that can bring students, faculty, staff, visitors and the community together. Well-designed, inspiring spaces without specific academic or extracurricular intention send the message to everyone present that they must be valuable, because “this space was made for me.”

    Outdoor areas can also serve as third places.

    Third places are also congruent with the theory of educating the whole child — socially and emotionally, in addition to academically. The SRG design team took the third place concept to heart by allocating specific space in the building program, rather than leaving the development of third places to chance in residual or found spaces.

    Specific rooms and areas identified in the new building are literally titled “3rd Place.” They include a variety of student commons zones, new ways to incorporate library functions, and a variety of exterior courtyards.

    Some defining characteristics for what might be a third place:

    • Neutral ground: Occupants of third places have little to no obligation to be there.

    • A leveling place: One’s economic, academic or social status does not matter in a third place. There are no prerequisites that would prevent acceptance or participation.

    • Conversation is a main activity: Although it is not required to be the only activity, the tone is usually lighthearted and playfulness may be highly valued.

    • Accessibility and accommodation: Third places must be open and readily accessible at any time.

    • The regulars: Any third place has its regulars that help give the space its tone and mood, but regulars also attract newcomers and help them to feel welcome and accommodated.

    • A low profile: Not too precious, the inside of a third place is without extravagance or grandiosity. Third places are never snobby or pretentious, and are accepting of all types of individuals.

    • The mood is playful: The tone is never marked with tension or hostility. Witty conversation and frivolous banter are not only common, but highly valued.

    • Home away from home: Occupants of third places will often have the same feelings of warmth, possession and belonging as they would in their own homes. They feel a piece of ownership in the space, and gain regeneration by spending time there.

    Embracing what may have been thought of before as simply “between” areas has validated them also as learning realms, and thus as equally important as other program elements, such as classrooms and labs.

    The new FWHS building configuration uses solid design principles to create great educational and useful activity spaces that will give all students a sense of pride, belonging and ownership in a safe and secure environment.

    It celebrates the history of the site and the community by maintaining and embracing the prominent street edge, and ensuring that “a school along the Federal Way” exists just as it did nearly 80 years ago when it was the only elementary school on this country road.

    By our coming to understand and embrace this vibrant history of community, combined with the effervescent school culture that prompted the development of ever-changing third places, all of Federal Way’s students — past, present and future — will soon find their own “great good place” on this campus.

    Barney Mansavage is a principal at SRG Partnership and dedicated to excellence in planning and design that inspires learning.

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