Some Very Welcome Changes

I have been fortunate enough to sit on a number of architectural juries in the past few years. I have always enjoyed reviewing the projects and seeing what was new, but it wasn’t until the last year or so that I really began to see schools where the design was substantially different from the one that I remember attending in Pittsburgh as a child. (Keep in mind that my kids tell me that dinosaurs still roamed the earth when I graduated from high school.) No question, that in past years new spaces were added to accommodate the latest technologies, but for the most part, a classroom was still just a classroom, accommodating rows of students in rows of desks.

In the last few years, the acronym SLCs (smaller learning communities) started popping up everywhere in project descriptions. The SLC structure includes autonomous schools-within-a-school, freshman academies, multi-grade career or themed academies and other like programs. In 2009, a number of the award-winning project designs were career academies where students could focus on a particular skill-set such as nursing, gaining practical experience in a specific field and earning college credits while still in high school. To support the further development of SLCs, the Department of Education’s Smaller Learning Communities Program plans to announce a new grant competition sometime in 2010.

Another acronym that started popping up was the ELA (extended learning areas). Extended learning areas are flexible spaces designed to promote student engagement and contemporary educational delivery. You won’t find rows of desks in these areas, but rather flexible furniture, informal seating, storage and display areas. ELAs accommodate a wide variety of student activities including individual tutoring, small-group interaction, team-based projects and special events. For students they also provide a more intimate setting that inspires a strong sense of community and encourages relationships with teachers and students alike.

It’s not my classroom winning awards anymore — and I’m glad!