When people talk about how hard it is to change our public schools, they’re usually referring to curriculum reform or employment contracts. But there’s another area where change is difficult: design. When a proposed school building doesn’t look exactly like what folks think a school should look like, officials freeze.
In part this is because they don’t know any better. It has nothing to do with intelligence or passion for education—it has to do with awareness. In the 1990s, I served on the Oklahoma City School Board and for several years was its president. After voters passed a historically large bond issue to support the renovation or new construction of every school building in the district—a windfall that in these tight times one can only look back on with wonder—I came up with many ideas, which in hindsight I now see were plenty flawed, about how we should approach design. Among my turkeys were moving a school from within its community to a field on the remote edge of the city and proposing a merger of elementary and middle schools into a K-8 that never got past parents’ fears of hulking teens overwhelming vulnerable kindergartners in the cafeteria.
I realize now that design could have solved both problems. In the first case, we should have simply renovated the building where it stood. In the second case, we could have designed a layout with methods to separate the big kids from the little. Looking back, I am a little horrified about how much I and other school leaders didn’t know. But there were few resources available to inform us. Too often, education leaders have not had much exposure to new ideas in design. The fallback position is to go with what you know. We knew practices were changing inside the classroom. It didn’t occur to us that those classrooms should change, too.
Creativity in the design process doesn’t automatically fit into the parameters many architects and contractors use for constructing schools. The traditional process focuses on management—schedule, budget, and efficiency—and leaves little room for creativity. This process doesn’t just undermine innovation; it can kill it. I’ve seen it happen.
Recently, I worked with a large district whose superintendent was overhauling its lowest-performing schools. He decided that innovative academic endeavors required equally innovative environments. Those charged with the innovation set out to envision it. In the meantime, the construction department raced to meet its own rigid imperative: a certain amount of seats by a certain date. In such cases, whoever has the most pull at the right time wins. In this case, which was not unusual, the construction department prevailed over the innovators.
Many school system leaders are not, by nature, risk takers. Public school systems exist in a highly charged political environment, and decision makers often choose the path of least resistance when making choices about something as highly visible as a new school.
But fostering innovative design can bring its own rewards. A superintendent in suburban Kansas City wanted to build a sustainable, green school. When architects gave him plans that didn’t fit his vision, he fired them and started anew, although he was under tremendous pressure to move forward. The school is now a model of sustainability. And he still has his job.
There’s often an assumption that innovative design costs more. The new Rosa Parks School in Portland, Ore., disproves that. The school has four “neighborhoods,” where classrooms are grouped into friendly clusters around a central commons with large windows offering lots of light and mountain views. Transparent interior walls make the “kids feel tightly connected to all of the other students, not just those in their own classes,” explained Vicki Phillips, director of education at the Gates Foundation and former superintendent of Portland’s public schools.
The teachers at Rosa Parks also benefit from this connectivity. As one third-grade teacher said, “We talk a lot about cross-grade communicating and sharing ideas. Such involvement can come from simply being able to make eye contact across a space.” This gorgeous, imaginative building didn’t cost a fortune. Because of creative partnerships with the city and nonprofit social service agencies, Portland got an innovative $20 million school for an $8 million investment.
In Colorado, students at the Denver School of Science and Technology start their day in a carpeted commons area, which fosters a relaxed, community feel. Flexible spaces allow classes to get up, move around, reconfigure themselves into smaller groups, or join forces with other classes. The galleria—a two-story corridor that extends along the school’s spine—is dotted with students learning, on their own and in groups.
Notice I didn’t say “hallway,” though you can walk through it to get from one place to another. This, interestingly, is a prime example of how great design can save money and one reason DSST cost less per square foot than a standard Denver public school. Hallways make up 20 percent of a traditional school’s footprint. You don’t need them. When I tell school leaders this, they look at me like I’m nuts. But when I explain how wasted-space walkways can be turned into learning spaces, thereby reducing the need for classroom space, it starts to make sense.
At High Tech High Chula Vista, near San Diego, most walls consist of large expanses of glass, with partitions that can be moved as needed when teachers want to join forces. The glass makes it possible to see what other classes are doing, which makes collaboration easier. No matter where you are in the building, you are not alone.
Teachers told us that this design has inspired them to work better as a team and develop new ways of teaching. “You’re not just stuck in your own little box,” one noted. The environment does not simply encourage community and transparency but actually requires it. I asked the teachers at High Tech High what would happen if their highly successful educational program was placed in a traditionally designed school facility.
“It would fail,” I was told.
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