The Classroom Evolved | Feature

Designing the School Around the Student

This Minnesota high school's planning team started from scratch and created a 21st century facility that turns the traditional classroom model inside out. Instead of waiting for students to come to class, teachers move about the school equipped with their laptops and other teaching tools.

What makes East Ridge High School different from its predecessors? According to Aaron Harper, principal of the 1,725-student Minnesota institution, it's the fact that his institution's original design was centered on technology's expanding role in the educational environment.

The Classroom Evolved

This is the third segment in a three-part series of articles focused on classroom design. Each article in the series looks at a how schools are reinterpreting the traditional classroom for the 21st century.

Part 1: The Classroom Evolved: Creating an Active Learning Environment

Part 2: Creating an Ultra-Flexible Learning Space

Part 3: Designing the School Around the Student

Learning from the Old
East Ridge High School's 22-person design and planning team was literally staring at a clean slate in 2008. Tasked with developing a new high school facility for South Washington County Schools, Independent School District 833 in Woodbury, MN, the group comprised teachers across all disciplines, technology experts, and district staff members with varied degrees of expertise in planning and design.

Having already deployed desktop computers and other academic technologies in computer labs  and other areas for standardized testing and curriculum management, the district's two existing high schools also served as resources during the planning phase for East Ridge High School.

"The two other schools paved the way for us," said Harper. "Many of our staff members here came from those existing schools and that certainly affected how we went about planning the new facility."

Technology and Teaching: Flexible Design ... with Exceptions
One of the planning team's first charges involved figuring out how it wanted the teaching to be delivered and received.

Whether teachers should be using technology as a tool, or if it would be a fully integrated component of the learning experience, was discussed at length. Harper said the team decided on the latter option. That choice led the planning team to discussions about professional development, the incorporation of technology into teacher lesson plans, and other points that ultimately affected the high school's design.

"We looked at everything from flexible classroom models with mobile furniture to traditional 'schoolhouse' structures with standard desks and furniture," said Harper. "After much research and consideration we decided that the flexible model would be the best choice."

That flexibility extended to the building itself. Instead of stacking rectangular classrooms and linear hallways on top of one another the team created a pod-like design with the central focal points called "learning resource centers," or LRCs. There are six LRCs, and each one supports a conference room, two labs, and six traditional classrooms. Common areas are equipped with flexible furniture, computers, and wireless Internet access, and each learning space includes a Smart board and a projector.

"By clustering groups of classrooms together around the LRCs and adding locker bays, restrooms, and staff offices to the setup," said Harper, "we developed these joint learning centers as alternatives to traditional, linear hallway arrangements that you see in a lot of high schools."

Certain sections of East Ridge High School are based on those traditional designs. The school's business and performing arts wings, for example, include shorter hallways that lead to individual classrooms. Harper said the nature of the instruction lent itself to a more traditional facility design.

"In some cases it didn't make sense to use the LRC setup," he said, "but these areas are the exception rather than the norm."

Key design elements that helped to create East Ridge High School's modern learning environment included power access that's incorporated into the furniture in the LRCs and other common areas. Classroom furniture choices included configured arc desks that enable both individual and collaborative study. The school's WiFi system blankets the entire campus, according to Harper, who estimated that the school is currently at a 1:5 ratio with its desktop, laptop, and tablet computers.

Teachers on the Move
When designing East Ridge High School, the 22-person design team came up with one sweeping change that didn't sit well with all of the new school's faculty members. "We decided that staff should go to the students and not the other way around," Harper explained. "That basically meant getting rid of the age-old 'every teacher has his or her classroom' philosophy."

The change had significant impact on the design of the school's physical space. Both the technology and the rooms themselves had to be flexible enough to accommodate multiple teachers and disciplines without disrupting classroom instruction. Instead of waiting for students to come to class, teachers move about the school equipped with their laptops and other teaching tools. "The rooms stay the same," said Harper, "and teachers Ms. Johnson and Mr. Smith became the variables."

To schools currently in the planning stages for new classrooms or facilities this principal said figuring out what you want to accomplish is the best first step. Then assemble a team to help with the key design decisions, he added, and be open to both individual and group input on design-related issues.

"It's very easy for a school board or the upper administration to do some research and then lock itself in a room and make the important decisions," said Harper, "without paying attention to the individuals who are actually implementing and/or using the technology."

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