Innovative School Design for Small Learning Communitites

We shape our buildings: thereafter, they shape us. -Sir Winston Churchill
You have to know a lot or else. -Elliot Washor

Radiant streams of sunlight. Wireless networks and handheld computers. Window seats, balconies, triple-story atriums, curved passageways, upholstered furniture, multi-function meeting rooms, huge closets and rooftop gardens. So, what are you thinking of? Schools? If you’re not, a cadre of Coalition schools aims to change your vision of educational architecture. They have remade the physical structures of schools to support small learning communities and the work of incorporating the CES Common Principles.

Coalition school leaders, teachers and students make radical changes from traditional educational practices to produce authentic, connected learning. Often, this means reforming in the literal sense-reworking the physical architecture of school buildings. In order to create the possibility for students to be active, for teachers to coach, and for everyone to know each other well, CES schools create environments where students can move around, create, and work. In these same spaces, teachers move with them, escaping the front of the room, sitting with individuals or a few students in quiet spaces, and joining with other teachers to work across disciplines with larger groups.

Opportunity for Widespread Change

Large comprehensive schools built a half-century or longer ago have reached their physical and pedagogical limits. Numbers of students overwhelm their capacities. They’re aging, crumbling and not working for teachers and students. According to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, United States public school districts are slated to spend twenty-eight and a half billion dollars in 2001 to build nearly two hundred million square feet of new or renovated schools. But what will these new or revamped schools look like? State and district authorities may well push toward apparent (though likely false) economies of scale and try to propel schools into building big for the long term.

Recently, some Coalition and other innovative schools have seized upon this opportunity for change, choosing and sometimes fighting to create facilities designed for teaching and learning on a human scale. Some have done away with classrooms and corridors and have created new, flexible spaces that support interwoven disciplines, projects and exhibitions, and intimate learning. Others pursue and achieve those goals within old school buildings that have been wrestled into the kind of shape that supports personalization, sustained inquiry, and the bedrock of solid community both within the school and beyond. All aim to create schools that communicate the real worth of education. As Heidi Early, science teacher at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine, says, “Kids are used to being in the spaces that they think they deserve. What schools look like tells students what they’re worth.”

Form Follows Function

Physical space reflects educational philosophy. Educators who reorient physical space to support essential learning agree: set clear pedagogical and social goals before you organize space. Ann Cook, Co-Director of Urban Academy, a small Manhattan high school that shares space in the Julia Richman Educational Complex with six other autonomous schools and three teacher/student service centers, advises, “Before you do anything, make a commitment to small. Decide educationally that it’s important to have small learning communities. Build the whole school culture. Then you can deal with how to support it architecturally, after you know what you’re doing programmatically.”

Starting in 1992, Chicago Vocational Career Academy remade its space to form ten separate academies. Its then principal, Dr. Betty Despenza-Green, now Director of the National High School Initiative at the Small Schools Workshop based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reflects, “Everyone wants small but it doesn’t mean anything if you won’t do other work that goes along with it. You can have a bad small school as well as a bad large school. Instead of starting from the physical, you need to start with the program you know you need to have. Then you can see how your existing structure won’t let you do that. And then you do the work of making physical changes.”

Noble High School moves into a new school building this academic year. Heidi Brewer, social studies teacher, knows that over a decade of innovative Coalition practice prepared the community to plan space that would allow them to continue their mission. “We had the philosophy first. Can you imagine the nightmare if we tried to start all kinds of new things in our school after we moved into a new building?” Pamela Fisher, former principal of Noble and catalyst of the new building project, agrees, asking the Noble planning team’s fundamental question: What would the physical design of the learning environment look like to fulfill and to enhance the beliefs of the school?

Homes for Learning Communities

CES educators and students experience traditional school architecture-long hallways, enclosed, isolated classrooms-as linear and disconnected, evoking assembly-line ethics and forcing separation. To enable connection in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Cleveland Middle School created “families,” teaching teams with small student groups looped together for the three-year school experience. In the beginning stages, confronted with the limits of a portable classroom, teacher Wayne Smith and his teaching partner took matters into their own hands. “In the second year that we had our family, we moved into a double portable divided by a wall. We were used to interdisciplinary work and we needed a huge area. We put in a work order to have the wall removed, but the district said no. So we went in with sledgehammers and pickups and took the wall out.” Smith, now Cleveland’s principal, laughs as he recalls his renovation project. The wall demolition began a push at Cleveland for more flexible space throughout to support the school-wide family groups. As tempted as some teachers may be to follow Smith’s lead, most schools use discussion, not sledgehammers, to find ways to create space that supports small, independent learning communities. Jeffrey A. Lackney, Assistant Professor in Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, worked with staff and students at Madison’s James Madison Memorial High School to develop the Neighborhoods project, which creates four large spaces for student governance, academic enrichment, and close teacher-student contact. Responding to staff and student desires, the Neighborhoods plan creates personalization and increases ownership and control among students. In “Forming Small Learning Communities: Implementing Neighborhoods in an Existing High School,” Lackney describes the Neighborhoods project: Memorial has gathered its 1,600 students into Backyard, Block and Neighborhood groups. Twenty students across the grade levels and one teacher form a Backyard group. The Backyard group is the core group, like an advisory and replacing homerooms. Five Backyard groups form a Block group. The Block group plans and coordinates a variety of activities, such as service-learning projects. Five Block groups combine to make each of the four Neighborhood groups; each Neighborhood occupies a newly remodeled space within the school that is home base for its students and teachers. Dr. Pamela Nash, Memorial’s principal, used a United States Department of Education Smaller Learning Communities Program grant to plan and build the Neighborhoods, which were constructed during Summer 2001 and are in use by all students this fall.

In planning its new building, Noble tackled the issue of how to create small, pedagogically autonomous groups in a new school by creating fifteen independent learning communities, each populated by four teachers and a hundred students. Each community contains storage areas, office space for teachers and support staff, a project room, classrooms with moveable walls, a science lab, and a central multi-purpose room, large enough to accommodate the learning community’s students and staff. Each community is the central learning space and hangout for its students and teachers. Greg Bither, Noble’s Assistant Principal, describes the new building: “The communities were designed with the idea that groups of students and teachers will take ownership of certain spaces.”

Flexibility Matters

Elliott Washor, Dennis Littky and their colleagues at Providence, Rhode Island’s Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (known as the Met) explicitly built autonomy and control into the school’s design. Washor, Co-Principal of The Met and Co-Director of The Big Picture Company, stresses the importance of “flexible walls that let you change the space as you need to change it. This puts control in the hands of the educator as opposed to the district. You have to build flexibility into any new building; you’re building schools that you know will change. It takes years to understand what to do with the space that you’re occupying.” Principal Ted Hall discusses an addition in the works at Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire to expand the nine-year old school building that’s already overflowing with students. “Flexibility is the most important thing we are including in the addition. We try not to make things specific.”

Daniel Cecil, Noble High School’s Project Architect, discusses how teachers planned to repurpose space even before the school opened its doors. “Every community has a pretty large storage space, where they can put furniture as they are moving things around and where they can put student projects. The teachers are going to use them as yet another small group space, in this case a place where they can do tutoring or meet with five or six kids within this small suite of rooms.”

Older schools don’t yield easily to transformation, but it’s possible to rework existing space to create intimate settings. Principal Debbie Meier’s Mission Hill Elementary School operates in a century-old building in Boston.Gutting and renovating cost too much, but Meier found ways to use Mission Hill’s existing structure, particularly its long, 14-foot wide hallway. “The corridor itself is shared living space. If I step out of the office at the center of the school, there are two little communities at each end. They have integrity-those teachers keep those kids until eighth grade. The space in the middle of the building is used for shared notices and is a central communications place. The corridor becomes the place where people chat with each other, where we highlight current curriculum. When the kids study Egypt, the corridor becomes the Nile river. When they’re working on railroads, we have freight tracks down the center. The corridor becomes the unifier of curri-culum and ideas. Because of the wide corridors, it’s easier to create the sense that teachers and kids collaborate across classrooms. We use this feature to enhance something that we had in mind.”

Noble’s architect Daniel Cecil describes other ways to incorporate flexibility: “We created an art wall, which is located next to the entry to every community. This is a six foot by eight foot piece of painted plywood, and a team building exercise at the beginning of every semester will be that the students and teachers get together and decide how they are going to decorate and customize that wall. In fact, they can do it every week if they want. We made it out of plywood so that they can paint a mural on it, they can nail things into it, they can put a sculpture on it, they can pin their photos on it, or anything else that they want to do to make it special to them. It is right there at the entrance signifying that it is a special space for them.” Memorial principal Pam Nash recommends open communication with unionized maintenance staff. “In our planning sessions, students wanted to paint Neighborhood walls. You have to make sure that you have working relation with unions so kids can do those things. It’s an ongoing negotiation process. Their initial reaction is no, we paint, we don’t want our job taken away. But as they began to understand what we’re trying to do, they said ‘Sure, they can paint a wall.'”

The Power of Malleable Environments

In his book Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy: Curtisville in the Lives of its Teenagers, Herb Childress, Director of Research and Communications at the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools, examines how place affects teenagers’ sense of belonging and attachment in their school and community. He learned tremendously from observing where students chose to hang out in school. “Kids flocked to rooms where they had control over their spatial organization, where they could crowd together at the end of a lab table or sit on top of one, where they could sit at the edge of the stage and let their legs drape down.” Comfortable seating, carpets, quiet corners and private niches are hallmarks of rooms where students get down to work. Debbie Meier says, “You need big and different sized rooms. Crowding people causes anxiety, and that tension and anxiety is contagious. Larger spaces create escapes; at Mission Hill, we use our halls so that kids can escape.”

Coalition schools are recognizing the need for kids to reshape their environments and in response are banishing desk-and-chair units and bringing in smaller, easily configurable tables and chairs. At Caledonia High School, a CES school in Caledonia, Michigan, principal Ron Moag notes, “High school students are more like adult learners now. They come to us with more exposure to different environments and work experience. If nothing else, we can use furniture to create an environment that supports them. In the new school, I’d love to go with tables and chairs that can move around. We need to treat each other with respect and accountability. Otherwise, we’re juvenilizing students who need more to work effectively.”

Schools are also capitalizing on the power of informal hang-out spaces. At the new Noble High School, Daniel Cecil created accommodating hallways: “We thickened corridors and we made odd-shaped nooks and crannies, which is a simple thing to do, and very inexpensive, but it will create a lot of memorable spaces that we think the kids will like.” Souhegan clustered lockers at the ends of carpeted hallways, drawing students into the building and hushing the omnipresent metal-slamming mid-corridor school noise.

Pamela Nash plans for Memorial’s Neighborhoods personalization effect to wash over the rest of the school. She points out, “What can be done with existing space is so important. At this point, when you walk into our building into the foyer, it’s filled with lockers. We’re planning to take banks of lockers out and our woodworking classes will build benches and planters to change the way people feel when they walk into the school.”

Cross-Generational Space

At Urban Academy, Ann Cook paid close attention to the school office. “We made the space support what we want to do. Our office is the old Julia Richman office. It used to have a long counter separating staff and kids. Now, all the teachers have desks in this room. There’s a Xerox machine and phones that the kids use. Lockers are in here and it’s a traffic point to the student lounge. It’s not about distance but about access, access to adults. Since Urban’s adults are all in this room, we have few turf issues. Kids and teachers relax on couches and beanbags in the hall. We want adults available to kids all the time. We’ve tried to make it clear that this an open place where kids have access to adults.” Debbie Meier describes a similar environment at Mission Hill: “In our shared cross generational office, kids feel some ownership. The office is not an office; it’s central casting, where everyone can find out what everyone else is doing.”

Communicating About Design

Caledonia’s Ron Moag has spent the past year immersed in the planning process of building a new school. “We started dreaming in an all-faculty in-service day. Then each department or school team chose a representative to sit on the high school core design team. The team included community people and middle and high school students. After our bond was passed, they provided input during a two-day planning process. Architects joined the meetings and put the vision on paper for the group’s review, and so it went for ten months. We also had two community forums open to all.” Moag describes visits from Caledonia teams to other schools as crucial to developing a building plan that would support the school’s current goals and allow for the possibility of “change ten to twenty years down the road without having to do a lot of physical structural change.”

While a well coordinated, inclusive process needs to be in place to include multiple voices, miscommunications can occur. Elliot Washor observes, “Most of the time, people don’t talk the same language. Educators don’t understand how to build and districts, school boards and architects don’t understand programmatic design. Flexibility and personalization mean different things. Flexible to me means being able to control the rooms I teach in, but flexible from a building planning point of view means that a building is equipped to grow from 1,200 to 1,600 students. Language and images can cause confusion. You need to put everyone in the same room and keep them there long enough so they understand that you’re designing a space in which form follows function. Almost all the time you can get beyond those things, but you have to be aggressive.”

In the mid-1990s, Anzar High School in San Juan Bautista, California came into being as a result of the creation of a new school district. Its staff, including Director Charlene McKowen, worked with architects and the community to plan a new building for the 370-student school. Despite a promisingstart, the project began to suffer due to financial constraints. McKowen remembers: “A bond issue didn’t pass and things started getting cut back. Pretty soon things started costing more than they were supposed to. We were cutting corners here and there and discouragement set in because we were in a compromise situation. The campus was supposed to be four or five buildings with one to five classrooms in each. The idea was that these would be built in phases. Two of them were built, but that was it, and now we work out of a row of portables in between them. We weren’t prepared to make compromises. When they had to happen we had to be really reactionary with a horrible timeline. The next time I do this, I will come up with a priority list to be ready for compromises and cuts.” However, Anzar’s staff has turned their space disparity into a strategic advantage, or has at least found the best side of the disadvantage, as McKowen describes: “Only a couple of teachers stay in the same room for more than a year in a row. Veteran teachers move around. This makes sure that no one is somewhere-good or bad-permanently, and all of us are accountable for each other’s state of being. This is going beyond collaborating and going to true collegiality.” At Anzar, changing classrooms is an honor, acknowledging the strength of more experienced teachers.

Seize the Moment

Teachers, principals, and community members who have made small and grand changes to personalize their schools consistently give a few pieces of advice. Focus on your pedagogy and values; know precisely what you’re supporting when you move toward architectural change. Be ready when financial opportunities arise for new building construction, building renovation or building addition. Be absolutely clear about your values and priorities. Work with like-minded design professionals. Solicit input from the most effective teachers and teams, the most engaged students, and the school’s larger community. Fight for what you know your school needs and your students deserve.

Physical structures are more given to change than they appear. Even small changes can make a significant difference in strengthening bonds of connection. When schools focus on finding ways for students to do real work and emerge from school with adaptable life skills, they can then reshape their buildings to create the best places for learning.