First Person

Designing school buildings for 21st century learning

Editor’s note: This article was written by Victoria Bergsagel ,founder and president of Architects of Achievement, a design strategy firm that builds bridges between educational research and actual school design. She was the speaker at the Nov. 20 What Matters and What Counts in Education breakfast.

Our country is abuzz with talk about 21st century learning. We chatter about global competition and the need for innovation. We bemoan the shortage of a well-prepared work force and cry out for systems to more equitably serve all students. Yet when it comes to the design of educational facilities, we are stuck in a time-warp. If he awoke today, Rip Van Winkle would probably recognize our schools. We can do better. We must.

There is plenty of research to guide robust school designs. The National Research Council (How People Learn, 2002) says we learn best through: 1) active, inquiry-based learning experiences that foster curiosity; 2) in-depth projects through which we make application and find relevance; and 3) performance assessment where we exhibit evidence of our skills and show what we know. But we don’t need rocket scientists to tell us that.

Design schools for people. Better yet, ask students. One 16-year-old nailed it. “No one wants to learn in sterile, boring, institutional facilities. Give us beauty, real-life projects, choice, opportunity, and ownership, and we’ll show you what we can do.”

The American Architectural Foundation (2009) determined in a recent study that students want hands-on learning opportunities, variety and flexibility, comfortable and social spaces, seamless technology, sustainable designs, and connections to the outdoors. I could not agree more.

Inspired by Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, (1979), I gathered some colleagues a few years back to write a book of our own. Architecture for Achievement: Building Patterns for Small School Learning (2007) offers patterns to reconfigure, renovate, and design better schools. Here’s a sampling:

Consider Optimal Light. It affects our motivation, energy, and vision—all of which are profoundly connected to learning. (The Heschong-Malone studies in1999 and 2002 found that students with the most classroom daylight progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests in one year.) Why would we not design schools to raise achievement and conserve energy?

Develop Indoor-Outdoor Connections. At their best, indoor spaces in schools connect and flow naturally into outdoor spaces presenting wonderful opportunities for developmental play, exploration, interaction, and learning. Consider designing learning patios for projects, nature trails and gardens for engagement, and field studies to encourage curiosity and adventure.

Design Clusters of Learning. Project development, community meetings, lectures, exercise, and presentations can all be experienced when key adjacencies (classrooms, specialty rooms, and studios) are co-located and easily adapted to a variety of teaching and learning styles.

Provide Varied Spaces. Students learn in different ways. Provide places for exploration, collaboration, tinkering, performance, quiet study, and yes, even direct instruction.

Operate campuses on a Human Scale and design in ways that permit all the participants in a learning community to know each other well. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Denver, and many other cities are reconfiguring existing campuses and building new small school complexes with remarkable success. So is Marysville, WA.

The Marysville Getchell High School Campus, just north of Seattle, is a stellar example of principle-driven design. Summits, open houses, and focus groups were all par for the course as the community developed guiding principles to move mountains – and raise graduation rates by over 25 percent. No wonder it is the darling of the school design world.

Recently named the best school design in the nation by the National School Boards’ Association (NSBA), and best in the world by the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI), the campus consists of a community building (replete with a gym, fitness center, and dining facilities) and four autonomous high school buildings. The Biomed Academy, School for the Entrepreneur, Academy of Construction and Engineering, and School for International Communications each serve 400 students. Outdoor learning patios, reconfigurable project labs, connected learning studios, and collaborative circulation spaces make the campus more like a modern workplace than the typical school. Students love the campus and are proud of their involvement in its design. See for yourself and check out this video.

Marysville accomplished this feat by developing guiding principles to focus their work, filter important educational decisions, test architectural options, and clarify important decisions when adult interests came in conflict with overall goals. As a result:

  • Community is provided at various scales to encourage community connection.
  • Relationships at the Center promote teaming and blur boundaries through transparency and shared spaces.
  • Learner-Focused spaces support interaction at various scales to invigorate projects, collaboration, and the display of student work.
  • Identity and Purpose shines through unique colors, materials, and user definitions of each small school.
  • Accountability is encouraged through spatial transparencies that provide connections between staff, students, parents, and community.

With strong relationships as a foundation, we can guide partners in inquiry and provide powerful experiences that help teams envision new possibilities. Gently pushing, we can challenge assumptions, ask bold questions, and engage in courageous conversations to design better schools.

Listen carefully, dream mightily, and execute elegantly. And take a cue from Christopher Alexander. “When you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it.”

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.