New Designs for Life Skills, Voc Ed

The life skills and vocational education components of high schools are no longer relegated to “found” space in a back corridor. Instead, they’re taking a front-and-center spot as program, curriculum, design and technology advances are made. The facilities prepare students for the future while, at the same time, impact the community.

How Are Life Skills and Vocational Education Changing?
Our experts offer four examples as to how nontraditional high school education is undergoing changes for the better.

1. It is broader. “There is more effort to make the programs full spectrum so that students have the opportunity to learn about any and all aspects of the profession they’re studying,” says Nathan Butler, AIA, LEED-AP, an associate principal with Orlando-based C.T. Hsu + Associates. That includes a focus on designing a real-life environment. For example, automotive programs include spaces where students can learn about the maintenance, dealership and financial/business components of the business, as opposed to simply the maintenance component.

2. There’s more emphasis on integrating technology. The first part of integrating technology in a nontraditional school facility is offering more control of the learning environment, which includes everything from lighting to acoustics to projection screens connected to the teacher’s computer.

The second part is integrating technology necessary for the program being taught. Automotive diagnostic technology is one example. “It’s not the traditional votech education anymore,” says Peter C. Campisano, AIA, CID, partner/director of Project Management in the Somerville, N.J., office of USA Architects Planners + Interior Designers. “Technology allows for hands-on education: You can design a product on the computer, and then build it with your hands or build it on the computer. It’s the next step up in the evolution of the wood shop or metal shop.”

3. Design flexibility is in. Like anything else in this world, career technology changes through time. “Today, it might be auto mechanics, and tomorrow it might be nanotechnology,” points out Dan Tarczynski, AIA, partner in the Orlando office of SchenkelShultz Architecture. To make those changes, nontraditional school facilities are being built with flexibility. They’re including nonload-bearing walls, and mechanical and lighting systems placed to accommodate changes.

“The idea,” says Tarczynski, “is that long-term costs are minimal when making facility changes to accommodate program changes. The irony is that this is how an R&D facility is also designed.”

4. The facility and program is impacting the community. In fact, notes Tarczynski, some administrators say that they have a program that impacts the community, but what they really have is a votech center, with no storefront and where the community has minimal contact with students. “Imagine going to school, being taught a procedure, and then turning around to immediately work with an actual user group,” he says. “In architecture, we hire interns who work for us outside of the classroom. Here, the student interns while in the classroom.”

What Is Driving These Changes?
“What accounts for these changes? An understanding of what’s happening in the world economy and in your local community and what the future of education is,” Tarczynski asks and answers his own question. Our experts agree, offering further explanation.

“I think these changes are driven by community demand,” says Butler. He notes that, when districts focus their efforts on efficient design and use some of the things that are available to them, like natural daylight, they create a better educational environment for students, in which test scores and attendance are improved and disciplinary issues are reduced.

“There is a community-driven demand for better schools because of that,” Butler says. “So when funding is in place to build new facilities, school districts are under greater pressure to deliver. It changes how administrators think about and plan for their facilities.

“I also think these changes are driven by market demand,” Butler continues. He is noticing more partnerships between institutions and the business community, which provides more real-world input. And, because districts want to stay competitive and offer the best environment in which students can learn, they’re eager to meet that market demand.

Finally, teaching methodologies are changing in that they’re using and supported by technology. “Using the Web is an example,” says Campisano. “There are Web-based programs that interactively promote learning and adventure for high school students. Using whiteboards is yet another example.”

Can You Show Me Some Examples?
Here are three examples of life skills and vocational high schools that demonstrate the changes that are taking place.

1. Satisfying Program Needs in a Flexible Manner
When the comprehensive renovation of Osceola High School in Kissimmee, Fla., is finished in 2012, it will boast a strong vocational component, including aviation, automotive, culinary, CAD and drafting. The multi-phased, $45.5-million project is being spearheaded by C.T. Hsu.

“We’re keeping three buildings,” says Butler, “tearing down the rest and building new facilities with a courtyard design.” He adds that all the new buildings are designed with flexibility to allow for inevitable program changes through time.

At the north end of the 298,000-gross-square-foot, flagship school are the aviation and automotive programs. The aviation space includes a workshop bay for learning about the basics of maintenance and various aircraft systems, a welding shop and a classroom component. “The school is located close to a regional airport,” says Butler, “which is convenient.”

The automotive space is similarly designed, with six work bays and a classroom component.

At the south end of the 2,500-student school is the culinary program. The standalone facility includes a kitchen, dining area and classroom. It is designed to accommodate small public events, complete with cooking, serving and management.

The CAD and drafting program are housed in a three-story classroom building.

“Osceola High School has a vocational program now,” says Butler. “The primary element is automotive, which is housed in an older building — it’s almost a makeshift setup. They’re looking forward to a new environment that’s specifically designed around their needs.”

2. Bringing the Outside World In

 “We believe this is a completely new building type for schools specifically related for children with autism,” says Campisano. He is referring to the Morris Union Jointure Commission’s New Developmental Learning Center in Warren, N.J., which was completed in 2007 to serve students ages three to 21 with multiple disabilities associated with cognitive sensory, health and motor impairments (many relating to autism).

The $41-million, 200-student facility boasts curricula designed to maximize development toward independence and to promote family and community education, thus preparing students for maximum functioning and development in society, notes the Website of designing firm USA Architects.

The high school (for students ages 14 to 21) is the heart of the building. “We tried to mimic the outside world and bring that into a controlled environment,” says Campisano. For example, an apartment teaches students how to live on their own. Businesses, such as a bank, restaurant, hardware store, barbershop, laundromat and garden center, also teach independence.

Campisano notes that other facilities of similar size (the facility is 167,000 square feet.) have traditional 600- to 700-square-foot classrooms on double-loaded corridors. The classrooms may include cash registers or empty shelves that need to be stocked, as in a grocery store setting, but that students are asked to pretend that they’re in that setting. “That’s one of the greatest weaknesses of that school design,” he notes. “If you can bring the outside in, in a controlled environment, then the sites, sounds and smells — coupled with repetitive education — have a positive effect on the students when they go into the real world.”

3. A Destination Spot With a Real-Time Working Environment

The Immokalee Technical Center, which was completed in 2008 by SchenkelShultz, was designed to create a business approach to vocational education — via site-based businesses. Students gain real-world training in businesses that include culinary arts, financial services, a medical clinic, an auto service center, a childcare center and a cosmetology salon.

“The goal was to create a 21st century, real-time working environment, where basically the building is used as a storefront system,” says Tarczynski. “All the career spaces that can have community or public access, do.”

As a result, citizens avail themselves of the 98,400-square-foot school’s services, stopping in for a bagel or getting their oil changed on the way to work. “The school is situated in the center of town, and right across the street is the traditional high school,” says Tarczynski. “Students get to taste all of the careers and then focus in on one or two.”

Knowing that the facility would serve as the town’s community center and offer real-time learning, administrators did not want it to look like a school. And, with a $24.2-million construction cost, it doesn’t. In fact, Tarczynski notes, it even has strong internal branding: “Everything inside is ‘I’ something. ITown Shops, ITech. This helps adults to realize that they’re benefiting the education of each student.”

The factors that are driving the design of life skills and vocational education schools ultimately equip the facilities to meet community, market and changing teaching methodology demands, which serve to equip students for a successful future.