Backdrop For Learning

Summer vacation is over and students are returning to school, many of them starting classes in new innovative facilities. These new schools are at the heart of the learning process. The best of these have been planned to be functional and flexible, open and airy, and safe and orderly places to learn. They have been designed with change in mind — the goal of their master plan was not to create a facility that would work forever, but to create a framework within which change could take place. Below are some of the elements that make these schools standouts.

School site selection has educational, environmental, and economic implications. Simply stated, the best school sites are easily and safely accessible, the buildings and grounds are compatible with the surrounding community and sufficient to facilitate the curriculum and programs, and the location allows the school to take advantage of potential community resources including partnerships with local businesses and other educational institutions.

The best schools serve as anchors for the community and are a reflection of community values. The needs of all stakeholders are accommodated on the campus. Schools are open later, longer, and for more community members — from senior citizens using the gym during off-hours, to immigrants taking evening English classes after work, to adults looking for job training. Some have integrated social services on campus. For others, new school construction has been the catalyst for the redevelopment of the entire community.

The best facilities are designed to enhance both teaching and learning. Small schools are one way to achieve that goal. In some districts, smaller facilities are being constructed. Many others are organizing their large schools into neighborhoods or educational pods, some arranged by grade level, others by curricula. Either way, the result is a significant improvement in academic performance, attendance, graduation rates, safety and security, and student involvement.

The best learning environments are flexible and stimulating. They have been designed to accommodate active learning, individual or group instruction, and different learning styles. Not that many years ago, the expectation was to have a teacher standing at the front of the room lecturing to her class while the students sat quietly at their desks. Today’s learning style has become active rather than passive, interactive rather than independent, integrated rather than isolated. Today’s teacher is no longer the“sage on the stage,” but the ‘”guide on the side.” The idea of a double-loaded corridor lined with classrooms is passé. In addition to a more traditional classroom space, new schools have spaces for small group/cooperative learning, exploratory learning spaces and teacher prep/work areas. The choice of furniture in these new spaces also adds to flexibility, making it possible to reconfigure the spaces or create new spaces as needed.

The need for a well-educated workforce has led to the development of more vocational schools and career academies. Some are regional centers developed jointly by a number of area school districts, while others are developed as magnet schools. These career centers provide hands-on experience in specialized fields that range from auto mechanics to engineering to nursing and healthcare. Instruction takes place in an occupational environment and, in some cases, classes count for workplace certifications. (For example, upon high school graduation from the nursing program, the student will have already earned their LPN.) These technical centers are also used after-hours for adult education classes. For many students who will not be able to attend college, these schools provide them the education they need to successfully compete in the workforce.

The schools being built today have taken us to a new level of technological excellence. Wireless networks are allowing students to work and learn anytime or anywhere, individually or in a collaborative environment. Libraries have become technology-rich media centers. Distance learning labs and programs are adding to the available curriculum. Audio-visual technologies like projection systems, interactive whiteboards, and the use of multi-media are making learning dynamic and appealing for today’s student. Technology had made learning more collaborative. You are more likely to see a group of students huddled around a computer screen doing research or working on a project together than an individual working alone — a perfect scenario for the students in this“friends generation.”