A New-Urbanist Model of Learning

A New Urbanist Neighborhood

Part of a new urban community located in North Richland Hills, the elementary school is located in the heart of the master-planned Hometown development — underway by community developer, William Gietema, CEO, Arcadia Realty.

“The new Hometown urbanist design represents the community’s desire to return to a true neighborhood environment,” said Gietama.“The Hometown development is intertwined with pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined boulevards and wide sidewalks and inter-connected parks, plazas, and playgrounds with plenty of green space.”

The elementary school is located across the road from the future city recreation center, performing arts center, and city library. The school will be an integral part of the residential community, which will allow kids to walk, bike, or be dropped off by parents on their way to work.

“The new school is child-centric,” according to Gietema.“Almost 80 percent of the site is dedicated to green space for the kids. The school building and associated parking (most of which is on-street) consume less than one fourth of the 10-acre site, creating what is essentially another park within the community.”

Learning Organization for the Future

The Walker Creek Elementary School is designed for contemporary learning. The new urbanist approach aligned strategically with the values and educational principles of the school district.

“We asked ourselves, how will learning take place in the 21st century?” said Stephen Waddell, superintendent of the Birdville Independent School District. “The answer, for us, was based on Peter Drucker’s learning community model. Instead of a factory model of learning, where students are pushed through school like assembly-line parts, the new model focuses on pulling kids through school — considering their individual needs first and foremost.”

Drucker believes that education is synonymous with change and growth. His theory notes that schools should be learning organizations that continually evolve and recreate themselves to thrive in a changing world.

The Walker Creek Elementary School takes those tenets to task by engaging kids with activities that take place outside of the traditional classroom in adjacent, flexible teaming studios. Informal gathering spaces and other open areas replace traditional corridors and encourage student interaction. Wireless connectivity allows virtual learning anytime and in any place — whether you’re in the school building, outside, or sitting on a park bench in Hometown.

Futuristic Educational Facilities

The new elementary school took its cue from other innovative facilities that Dr. Stephen Waddell visited prior to being hired as Birdville Independent School District superintendent.

The IBM Palisades Executive Conference Center in New Jersey was one of them. “I knew that I wanted our school to include aspects of this facility,” said Waddell. “It is one of the most technologically advanced conference destinations that I have visited. The center is technologically astute. We learn the same way that we work. Technology allows instant access, discussion, and clarification.”

Numerous meeting spaces — sized based on the type of discussion instead of a one-size-fits-all approach — promote an inspiring learning environment at IBM Palisades. Alcoves with plug-ins foster instant connectivity and brainstorming.

The conference center also incorporates the outside environment into its learning culture. Outside gathering areas and landscaped, manicured grounds provide a soothing backdrop for learning.

Another example, The University of Dayton’s (OH) ArtStreet, promotes learning at its housing and arts education complex. The first phase of ArtStreet includes six two-story townhouses and five loft apartments that sit above performance spaces and artist studios and provide housing for 56 students, both art and non-art majors.

"The University of Dayton is building for the future," said Waddell. “The academic institution addresses how, why, and where students learn. Gathering areas and nooks for collaboration are located throughout the residence hall.

“In the factory age, organizations outlived their employees,” he continued. “In today’s knowledge-based economy, employees outlive organizations. Today’s students have to be their own CEOs in terms of their careers. Studies are already showing that employers who inspire continued learning for new hires generate staff loyalty. Employees want to grab a cup of coffee and discuss a project under a shaded tree versus an isolated office.”

A Creative Design Process

When considering building their first new elementary school in 10 years, the Birdville Independent School District issued a request for qualifications to design a forward-looking elementary school and followed that with a design competition. The selected education design architect was HKS, Inc.

Superintendent Waddell managed a design process that allowed the infusion of new ideas. He invited many staff and community stakeholders to participate as design committee members. He even involved keynote speaker Ian Jukes, an educational futurist, to prime the group and challenge everyone to think outside the box. The committee participated in an intensive series of design work sessions to brainstorm a conceptual school plan.

To make sure that these progressive ideas were implemented in the future, Waddell hired a new school principal based on her forward-looking management style and work plan.

“We didn’t want to build a non-traditional school and hire a traditional principal,” said Waddell. “To select the right person, we asked candidates to write a business plan for the school and present it to a review committee. Similar presentations took place before hiring teachers, too.”

Involving teachers, students, parents, and community members, from the conceptual design phase through project opening and ongoing involvement in school operations, has fostered a true community-based school.

“This school is designed so that the community can use it after hours,” said Waddell. “Community and library rooms up front, for example, are open to learning opportunities for adults and meetings after hours, even while other parts of the building are secured.”

The Architectural Response

The new-urbanist design posed a number of challenges for the team. The first design issue had to do with the placement of the elementary school to complement the urban setting. Given that the building was in the center of Hometown development, it had to be aesthetically pleasing from all sides. To meet the challenge, designers created a village-like, public street side and a private park-like, green side.

“A landscaped, pedestrian-friendly walkway is located along the building’s main street, creating an urban edge to the site,” said Jess Corrigan, AIA, principal designer, HKS, Inc. “Inside the campus, a protected, landscaped green space provides open and inviting areas for students and staff.”

Zoning mandates affected design decision. The building had to be located at the corner of the site, requiring designers to rethink the typical elementary school layout of the parent pick-up and drop-off area. Today, the parent drop-off and playground areas co-exist through the use of a common space, the patio.

“During mid-day, the patio is gated off from vehicular access to serve as a paved play area,” said Corrigan. “There is no parking available on the patio, which helps preserve a safe, child-oriented environment. It is often used for community events like barbeques, art fairs, and school carnivals.”

The building has two wings, academic and public. The one-story public wing houses the gym and cafetorium. The two-story classroom wing is organized around multi-purpose classrooms and flexible teaming areas centered in grade-level pods.

“To promote flexible use, the teaming spaces are outfitted with mobile furniture to change configurations — accommodating scaleable interaction and various groups, activities, and schedules,” added Corrigan.

Corridors and public spaces are set up for rotating displays and exhibits of student work. Streaming with northeast light and courtyard views, they are finished with colors and metaphors for sunlight, vegetation, earth, water, and air. In lieu of ceilings, these spaces are open to the exposed structure with industrial light fixtures to create a true studio-like feeling.

The Result

Noted educational guru, Phillip Schlechty is weighing in on the new school environment. Each week, educators who are reading his book, “Working on the Work,” are conversing with Schlechty through blogs to improve educational processes at Walker Creek Elementary School.

“The focus of the book is engaging students with work that they want to do,” said Marta White, principal of Walker Creek Elementary School. “Instead of focusing solely on the teacher or students, we are centered on the work and the environment in which work is completed. This new school lets us test Schlechty’s theories by taking learning outside of the traditional classroom. Being wireless, we can teach in a peer or group environment literally anywhere inside or outside of the building.”

Waddell also believes that the building’s architecture is best for his school district. “The elementary school respects proven learning practices from the past while also supporting 21st century teaching and learning,” he said. “This drives our students to learn about times, places, and events that expand their minds and imaginations beyond their expectations.”

“Now that virtual learning and home schooling are taking millions of students out of the traditional classroom, our goal was to design a building that would be flexible for people working there today as well as 30 years from now,'' he explained.

Mark VanderVoort, AIA, is senior vice president, at HKS Educational Group.