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August 24, 2017
For every school design, there should be a fit between the culture of teaching and learning and the environment we design to support it. When a school has a strong and identifiable culture, the design can be more responsive and rich.
Olympic Hills Elementary has a long history of serving its families through well-developed educational and social strategies for inviting parents in and for nurturing their children. But the existing school building was past its prime and didn’t fit the school’s culture.
As part of the Building Excellence IV levy, Seattle Public Schools chose to replace the school with a new building. Designing a new place to fit their engaging culture was the primary goal of the project.
Responding to students
Situated in North Seattle, Olympic Hills Elementary has a high degree of socioeconomic and cultural diversity.
A growing body of evidence shows that parent engagement is a huge factor in the success of students, particularly for children living in poverty. Engaging families is an integral component of this school’s approach, such as by hosting a variety of cultural events and activities around food, art, performance and storytelling.
The essence of Olympic Hills’ culture is to develop the interests, aptitudes and abilities of each child uniquely. Teachers acknowledge and respond to different cultural practices and the limited support that many children have at home.
The impact of the great diversity in the student culture means that children must be engaged in accord with their individual characteristics. Differentiated instruction is Olympic Hills’ educational approach.
An instructional dance
Helen Joung was the principal at Olympic Hills during the design process, and led the staff in implementing differentiated instruction there.
The school has become a center for professional development on the approach district-wide. Student are addressed differently through the learning activities they are engaged in, the groups they work within, the attention they receive, and the variety of settings that are made available.
Teacher teams and related specialists are arranged in suites of classrooms, with a central shared space to work together. They tailor activities and support to the particular needs of students, individually and in carefully crafted groups.
Students move between “centers” within the classroom and within the suite. It’s a “dance” among the teacher, students and learning activities they are engaged in. The building supports the dance.
5 teaching modalities
Five modalities of teaching and learning in the classroom are the essence of the approach at Olympic Hills. Teachers conduct the dance with their students individually, in groups and collectively in the way they organize learning activities throughout the day.
In the first modality, teachers organize students in small groups by similar aptitude or ability, working with each group according to their needs.
In another modality, they will arrange students in groups by different ability, so that a student strong in one area, such as writing, can support a student who needs help from a peer. And that student receiving assistance may lend support to another in a different group.
In a third modality, time is given to independent study.
The whole-group orientation/instruction modality is for a limited time but essential for creating a sense of community and context for the other learning activities.
The fifth modality offers students experiences with hands-on “making” activities.
The unique culture of Olympic Hills the way they engage students, involve families and create a close-knit community inspired the design of the new school.
Classroom suites are designed to be agile in supporting all these modes of differentiated teaching and learning. Surfaces in the rooms allow students to brainstorm, demonstrate, display, critique or imagine. Classrooms include sliding whiteboard and tackboard surfaces in front of the cubbies to provide additional active learning surfaces in the room and reduce the visual clutter and distraction of cubbies.
Each classroom houses an integrated reading library with material for a wide range of abilities. Classrooms also include a place for quiet reflection and a sense of refuge for students to calm themselves, contemplate and reflect.
Each suite of classrooms provides a central common area that acts as an extension of the classroom, to provide another setting for engaging each student. Additional learning support services can be brought to students within their learning community.
A high degree of transparency and visual connection unites all of the spaces within a suite and creates a sense of community, balanced with surfaces to support active learning. The learning community suites include shared storage for the materials that support differentiated instruction, so that they can be shared between teachers throughout the school year and free up space in the classrooms and common area for learning activities.
To support families and partners of the school, Olympic Hills includes a community welcome center for parents that doubles as a professional development center for teachers. The health room is designed to serve as a community clinic.
A full-size gym encourages family fitness and houses community events. Olympic Hills is designed for community use with the ability to close off academic areas after hours, leaving the rest of the building open.
Different accent colors were chosen for each grade-level learning community to give the classroom suites individual identity and a sense of progression as students matriculate through the school. The colors are collected together in community areas like the library and commons. This color strategy also signifies the individual within a whole community.
Olympic Hills has a culture that is predicated on the deep understanding that children are different and family support makes a difference.
To fit that culture, the design of the new Olympic Hills Elementary provides a diversity of settings and experiences for students. To extend learning beyond school and provide continuity between school and home, the design of Olympic Hills creates places that welcome families and offers support and a sense of belonging.
For some time, schools have been serving many aspects of society beyond learning, and those supports benefit learning. We must acknowledge schools as the family resource centers that they are and design them to engage each child differently, for the unique wonder that they are.
Michael McGavock is the principal for Learning Environments at McGranahan Architects, leading the engagement, inquiry and planning of meaningful places for learning.