School Modernization

Space Craft

CRAFT Innovative architecture is bringing form to the function of 21st-century learning.

Space CraftIN her first visit with the design team for the new high school she would be presiding over, Principal Tabitha Branum was blunt about what needed to be done. "When I met with them for the first time," she says, "I said, 'You tell me where I can knock down any and all walls. You tell me what's not load bearing, because I'm gonna knock those walls down.'"

The mission was to transform what had been a traditional elementary school site into an academy-style high school, replicating a newfangled school architectural model that enables 21st-century skills to thrive. Studio-style open spaces that recall the aesthetics of a corporate loft would replace the right angles and enclosed environment of the brick-and-mortar classroom. "The entire infrastructure of what was inside the four walls had to go," Branum says. "We had to be willing to let go of any existing room-- size, dimensions, everything."

The construction of New Tech High at Coppell, in Coppell, TX, would take eight weeks, completed in time for the 2008-2009 school year and producing an example of how workplace design principles can be coordinated with modern educational goals. The campus was built on the model of New Technology High School in Napa, CA, the flagship campus for the New Technology Foundation's network of schools. The foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1999, promotes project-based learning supported by a 1-to-1 computing mandate at each of its campuses, which each house no more than 500 students. Coppell Independent School District spent a year researching academy-style schools around the country, in places such as Arizona, Nevada, California, and Ohio.

"In the end, we kept coming back to the New Tech schools," says Branum, former assistant principal of the district's other high school, Coppell High School. "They truly exemplify the 21st-century skills that we wanted for our students. The New Tech model was the only one that could actually deliver that."

Space Craft

MOVING PARTS Portable desks allow classrooms at Columbus Signature Academy to quickly convert from direct instruction to small-group collaboration.

With their emphasis on transparent, glass-walled classrooms within which collaborative lessons are carried out not by teacher and student but facilitator and learner, the New Tech schools depart sharply from traditional schoolhouses. To prepare for this shift in educational culture, the foundation recommends that districts adopting its methodology designate an entirely separate location at which to build the new school.

"When you separate the students into a new building, you're able to facilitate this culture much more rapidly and much more effectively than if you were trying to do it inside an existing high school, where students are mixing in common areas with students and teachers who are in a traditional model," says Shannon Buerk, an education design strategist with Cambridge Strategic Services, which has consulted on multiple New Tech projects, including Coppell. "It's hard to create this real student-driven, collaborative culture inside a traditional high school."

A decision made by Coppell early on in the campus' construction created possibilities never available during the building of the other New Tech sites. The technology had progressed enough to allow Coppell to meet the 1-to-1 computing requirement with wireless laptops rather than the plugged-in desktops the other New Tech schools used. This was a major step forward, says Kevin Gant, a school development coach for the New Technology Foundation, because it allowed a basic element of the group's 21st-century ethos to flourish.

"When you walk into one of the older schools, it has desktop computers," Gant says. "You get the sense that the class is about computers, not collaboration. When you walk into Coppell, all the students have laptops and you see students face-to-face all the time. You get a sense that collaboration is the most important thing here."

Without having to worry about creating stations for desktop computers, Cambridge Strategic Services and its partner, the SHW Group, an architectural firm that focuses on education, were free to begin turning the former elementary school into a modern learning center. The designers worked to create a space that mimicked a creative professional environment similar to a New York City loft and would excite and inspire students.

"I knew I wanted transparency," Branum says. "We wanted lots of glass, where learners could see one another working from across the hall." Old closets were reshaped into projectplanning rooms. "If you can imagine a room that has 50 learners in it with eight or nine project teams working, that can be a lot of noise. It's wonderful to have the flexibility to send a group of learners into one of the project-planning rooms, and give them a space where they feel like they can work and be more productive."

What Do Students Want? Mobility, Comfort

Space CraftEDUCATION DESIGN COMPANY SHW Group and its partner firm, Cambridge Strategic Services, recently teamed with New Technology High School (pictured) in Napa, CA, to conduct a student forum on modern classroom design. Cambridge design strategist Shannon Buerk joined with designers from SHW and one of its sustainability experts to lead 15 sophomores and juniors-- all aspiring architects, engineers, and educators with an interest in sustainability-- through the process of creating a low-cost, portable, and carbon-neutral learning environment.

The SHW contingent conducted visualization exercises and brainstorming sessions to focus the students on the atmosphere and tools necessary for a successful learning space. "What came out of this process was that the students felt their personal device-- their computer, their PDA, their iPhone-- was what they considered to be their primary learning tool," Buerk says. "If they had that personal device, they didn't need anything else. It's you, your brain, your teacher, your computer, and you're good to go."

This determination guided the students as they conjured up their ideal learning environment, which prioritized openness and mobility and the flexibility to use their personal devices in different venues. "They wanted to make sure that nothing impeded their ability to be mobile, be connected to the outdoors, and be connected to other people," Buerk says, "but they also felt it was important to have a main space that created a comfortable, open, inviting, spacious, and customizable learning environment."

From there, the experts worked with the students to create designs reflecting these concerns, with an eye toward constructing spaces that were high in performance but low in cost. What resulted were cutting-edge prototypes for 21st-century classrooms. Buerk notes, however, that just asking students what they want is pretty cutting edge in itself.

"The single most powerful thing that could improve our learning environments is getting the student voice involved," she says. "Every time we try to design a building and do strategic planning with a district, we include the students in the creation process. Who better to know what could work?"

Space Craft

A CLEAN, WELL-LIGHTED PLACE Columbus Signature Academy Principal Mike Reed says visitors to his campus should not recognize that they’ve entered a high school.

The ceilings were opened up to expose the wiring and air ducts. "By making the building a little bit unfinished, a little bit roughed out, it has a more creative, messy feel," Buerk says. "It looks like learning and creativity happen there." Also, the designers filled the space with furniture that was comfortable, adaptable, and, most importantly, didn't look as if it belonged in a school. Purchased from Ikea, the desks can be moved about and the chairs are on wheels. Adds Branum, "Ikea was affordable, comfortable, flexible, very kind of cutting edge, especially for this generation; they love that modern look."

A Blank Slate

The reverse of the charge given to Coppell architects to knock down existing structures was handed to the designers of another New Tech campus, Columbus Signature Academy in Columbus, IN, who were given an empty space and told to build anew.

The district chose the abandoned Hoosier Auto Parts Warehouse in downtown Columbus as the site of the new campus. It was an unconventional choice that paid off, says Mike Reed, the school's principal. "The beauty of the building was that it wasn't chopped up into spaces already. It was a blank slate. The location made it ideal: It's centrally located between our two larger high schools and very close to some post-secondary campuses."

Reed and his faculty members collaborated with Indianapolis- based CSO Architects to develop the space, with the same vision that drove Branum at New Tech High at Coppell. "We wanted it to reflect a 21st-century workspace," Reed says. "Guests' first impression should not be that they've entered a high school."

John Rigsbee, CSO's lead designer on the project, used the firm's own work facility as a template for the new campus. "It's very open, very few walls, and has spaces for large- and small-group work as well as individual work," he says.

Thus, the new school building, which, like Coppell, opened last year, resembles a corporate office, with a lobby fronted by a receptionist and outfitted with comfortable furniture, and an internet bar where visitors can check their e-mail. Past the lobby are two 1,800-square-foot studios. In each, two teachers lead 50 students in collaborative projects focused on the school's academic thrust: STEM-- science, technology, engineering, and math-- learning. The studios are designed to support both traditional direct instruction, where all 50 students are facing the teacher as information streams from the front of the room, and collaborative learning, where students work on their own in small groups and the teacher's role recedes.

"We were able to accomplish a lot of the flexibility we needed with furniture," Reed says. "The tables fold quickly-- they're all on wheels. The transition between direct instruction and small-group collaboration happens very quickly."

Reed also wanted a space that reinforced New Tech's core values of trust, respect, and responsibility and demonstrated the principle that the work of students and teachers is public and should be transparent. Thus, all of the servers and cable trays are exposed and open. There are no lockers for the students; instead there are student storage areas where they can leave books and personal items between classes. Interior windows line the studio spaces, and the teachers' work areas are open to students.

As happened at the Coppell campus, the decision to use wireless laptops to complete the 1-to-1 rollout increased flexibility and mobility throughout the school. "Our tech director pointed out that if we're emphasizing 21st-century skills, desktops don't fit that plan," Reed says. "These days, people in the workplace have laptops or handheld devices they take with them wherever they go. Our kids can move into any part of the studio. They can move their group into a multipurpose room; they can move into the hallway and have a mini-workshop. The wireless environment creates a true 21st-century learning center."

And it's the environment, not the technology, Buerk from Cambridge Strategic Services explains, that allows the instructional goals to flourish and an educational culture to develop. "The name 'New Tech' sometimes gets in the way of what New Tech is all about," she says. "People think of it automatically as a tech school. It's really all about the culture, the collaboration, the soft skills that students are learning through the projectbased- learning methodology." Buerk says the architect acts at the behest of that methodology. "Our ultimate goal is that the instruction drive the design, and that the design inspire learning."

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This article originally appeared in the 8/1/2009 issue of THE Journal.