Final Thought: A Giant Half Step

An architect and I had just heard a presentation on some new schools encompassing flowing space, flexible walls, connections between indoors and out, emphasis on neighborhoods instead of classrooms, and providing spaces for individuals and small groups. The presentation was billed as“A School for the 21st Century.”

“I wish my clients would allow me to design something like that,” my architect friend said, “but more often than not I am just trying to convince school districts that they should not duplicate the schools they constructed 40 years ago. How or where do I find clients willing to step out front and build schools like those we just saw?”

The architect is working with a district that plans to build an 800-student elementary school. “It’s too big (they’d be better off with two smaller buildings), but when I suggest that, board members say I’m just trying to drive up my fees. So, here we go with an 800-pupil traditional elementary school with separated classrooms and little other than wiring that will distinguish this building from the ones built 40 years ago.”

His situation is not unusual. Looking at various displays of schools that have been built recently, many of them award-winning, one finds the same basic designs — separated classrooms and double loaded corridors, large buildings with no consideration of ways in which to make them smaller.

Does a school have to be either “traditional” (meaning essentially designed as schools were designed 40 years ago,) or creative and experimental? Is there a middle ground that would result in schools that people recognize and are comfortable with, but that allow 21st Century ideas and programs? I think there may be.

For example, if you are going to have individual classrooms in an elementary school, they should be large enough (at least 900 sq. ft.) to allow a variety of activities. They should allow technology to be used anywhere, and they should have water. That’s pretty standard. But most important, instead of lining them up along corridors, consider clusters of four to six rooms around an open area large enough to hold all the children in the adjacent classrooms.

By clustering in this manner, you open up a range of possibilities. There would be about 36 classrooms in that 800-student school the district wants to construct. If there are six clusters of six rooms, all students in a grade could be located together, allowing and encouraging teachers to work cooperatively, to carry out inter-class projects, and even to exchange students when that was useful.

But also consider the possibility that instead of clustering all classes of a grade together, you might have inter-grade clusters. A primary cluster would have two classes of each grade. Perhaps teachers would loop with their students for the first three years of school, providing familiarity and a steady hand.

A cluster could also operate as a small school with students from grades K-5. Instead of a single huge school for 800, if each cluster operated as a unit there could be six small K-5 schools, each with fewer than 150 students and its own open space. By forming the classrooms in clusters, the design opens the possibility for creating small learning communities within the larger structure.

Carry that a little further and consider how the open space might be used. Obviously, it can be a gathering space, a study area, and a place for tutoring. I visited one elementary school where a class built a teepee and the whole school used it as the gathering place for a year’s study of the American Indian.

In another school, the cluster area became a block and large-object indoor play area for younger students. A third made it into an art room, taking messy activities out of the classroom. Another used it as a library and staffed it with an aide who also served as a substitute teacher, saving dollars for the district.

With classrooms designed in a cluster, each school and each group of teachers can determine their own best use for the space that they all occupy.

Individual classrooms may not fit the visionary’s view of the school of the future, but they do provide a measure of comfort for most citizens, their school boards, and many of their teachers. Designing them in clusters around an open space creates options that classrooms along a double loaded corridor do not.

Schools with clustered classrooms may not break the overall mold, but they represent a “giant half step” that any district and any architect can take towards those flexible, flowing schools for the 21st Century.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."