The Academy: Elementary School Designs

Part 3 of our 6-part series
Part 2: Idea Mining

Design Sessions

Shifting from the idea mining portion of the Academy to hands-on, collaborative design, Fellows were broken into four groups, each focused on a particular segments or aspects of education: elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, furniture and technology.

Armed with sketch paper, dry erase boards, large flat-panel displays and tools like Google Sketch-up, architects, furniture designers and technology experts set out to capture Fellows’ ideas for the ideal school facility.

“Our biggest thing—and this doesn’t apply only to these groups, but to any group that we’re working with—is really getting them to step away from the what they are accustomed to,” explains Ashley Dennis. “So often we hear, ‘I need more storage,’ or ‘I sure wish the air worked well.’ And it’s good for them to vent those frustrations, but it doesn’t help to push our concepts to where schools need to be ultimately.”

The question to aim for, Moseley Architects’ designers suggest, is: What does the ideal school look like? If there were absolutely no restrictions and no budgets to stay within, what would their Utopian views look like for school buildings?

Elementary

In keeping with the whole-child concept, Fellows working on elementary school concepts honed designs they felt focused not only on the functionality of classrooms, but a school’s ability to care for students’ full physical and mental needs. In the process, teachers felt it was imperative for parents to be met with opportunities—on school grounds—to focus on the needs of their children and families.

“It felt like it was off to a slow start. And then finally one of our group members said, ‘I’m going to say something nobody’s going to like.’ Then he starts talking about how schools need to be like neighborhoods, and they need to be more like cities, and to have streetscapes. The other two team members jumped in and said, ‘Yeah and then we can have this and this.’ In an instant, I thought, ‘Now this—this is going to be awesome.’”

Ashley Dennis, K-12 Managing Principal with Moseley Architects

Public-facing features incorporated into elementary school designs included:

  • Community gardens with their own (separate) entrances and after-hours access;
  • Gymnasium, auditorium and cafeteria designs that allow for doubling as community spaces for adult learning and activities;
  • Integrated public parks with independent access; and
  • Community kitchens equipped for adult education and activities.

Fellows who had visited school systems that cater to families and communities said they’ve seen the benefits. “Families would go out to help paint, to help garden, or to assist with things like physical education, or would simply donate their time to give back,” says Freebird McKinney, who traveled across North Carolina, witnessing the impacts at various school facilities.

Fellows also decided that the ideal elementary school should include:

  • Onsite laundry facilities;
  • Welcome cafes equipped with public computers and free Internet access;
  • Onsite (basic) medical care facilities; and
  • Offices for social work and onsite therapy.

As those amenities took their form among classrooms and other components, elementary school concepts took on the appearances of villages, or something akin to town centers (think open-air malls or mock villages). In the process, Fellows envisioned that funneling students through such amenities would not only give them a sense of community, but a feeling of support and confidence—knowing that their basic needs will be met and that their wellbeing is valued. By placing drop-off zones directly in front of cafeterias, students would have the opportunity for grabbing breakfast on the way to their classrooms.

“They don’t care about world history if they’re hungry … with eating spaces that are more communal and functional, we built on the idea that this school—our school—is serving the whole child,” one Fellow commented.

Meanwhile, with medical facilities built in, families who struggle to find time and access to basic care could fulfill those needs onsite, while also washing clothes or utilizing an Internet café for job searching.

To some, the village concept that North Carolina’s Fellows came up with might sound like socialization of public-school grounds and resources. And to be clear: It is. But those measures, teachers say, are what it takes to eliminate many of the common barriers to learning, while giving students the confidence they need to actively participate in education.

“We’re satisfying all levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for these kids, starting with physiological. I believe that’s what public education is now and what it should be. That top level of Maslow’s hierarchy is what focuses on self-actualization. But in order to get there, you have to tackle basic physiological needs. That’s where our curriculum and our classroom designs come in. The sense of belonging, sense of family, sense of love that they’re going to get—and the sense of accomplishment and increase in self-esteem—schools need to be designed to not only accommodate those needs, but to promote their fulfillment.”

Freebird McKinney, 2018 North Carolina Teacher of the Year

As a result of the group’s designs, administrative offices were no longer closed off from classrooms and other parts of school facilities but drafted as open areas. Cul-de-sac designs incorporated large, open areas around classrooms, linked by overhead doors that open to allow classroom activities to spill out into hallways and outdoor spaces, where students are free to “get messy.”

“I think we all have this vision of a better tomorrow—one in which there’s more compassion, and every individual realizes that it’s not only about them, but about the ‘we.’ It’s about changing that mindset in the educational setting. Right now, we have communities of people who grew up thinking about themselves mostly on an individual basis, thinking, ‘I’m going to take care of me. I’m going to take care of my family,’ and asking, ‘Why should I worry about anybody else?’ We need to change that narrative. We need to grow children that see things differently—who have a broader lens and are capable of making decisions that are based on the betterment of all people. That’s our goal.”

Lisa Goodwin, 2017 North Carolina Teacher of the Year.

As a result of the group’s designs, administrative offices were no longer closed off from classrooms and other parts of school facilities but drafted as open areas. Cul-de-sac designs incorporated large, open areas around classrooms, linked by overhead doors that open to allow classroom activities to spill out into hallways and outdoor spaces, where students are free to “get messy.”

“I think we all have this vision of a better tomorrow—one in which there’s more compassion, and every individual realizes that it’s not only about them, but about the we. It’s about changing that mindset in the educational setting. Right now, we have communities of people who grew up thinking about themselves mostly on an individual basis, thinking, ‘I’m going to take care of me. I’m going to take care of my family,’ and asking, ‘Why should I worry about anybody else?’ We need to change that narrative. We need to grow children that see things differently—who have a broader lens and are capable of making decisions that are based on the betterment of all people. That’s our goal,” said Lisa Goodwin, 2017 North Carolina Teacher of the Year.

Next, we heard from the middle and high school groups.

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