Schools as Community Spaces

Pre-K through 5 elementary schools, middle schools, 9th grade centers and senior high schools have always been important to their surrounding communities. Today, schools are stepping up to this reality more and more. Schools are reclaiming their central importance as the hearts of their neighborhoods, and that is reinforced by aligning attendance zones within walking distance for local schools.

School districts are increasingly opening schools for multiple community functions that foster learning and neighborhood cohesion. As a true partner in the vitality of the community, schools provide spaces for PTA and Scouting organizations and other community partnerships such as Big Brothers Big Sisters. Homeowner and neighborhood associations use schools as meeting spaces, as do governmental bodies, politicians and candidates for office. Election commissions set up voting booths there, too.

Redefining the way space is used on the typical school campus is also the result of changes in public education itself in our nation. For instance, school districts are trending toward a K-14 environment that eases their students into higher education by providing tools and a framework for success in the future. To accommodate this trend, the academic environments must provide multi-purpose and varied spaces for learning activities.

From the Inside Out
How to achieve these new space-use challenges now occupies boards of education and their architects and construction project managers. They plan to effectively accommodate quality educational experiences and to create safe, youthful and efficient environments as well. They must configure spaces that fit for a science class as well as an occasional extracurricular group, working out the logistics of the next great project or a group hosting an after-school activity. The courtyard of Gateway Middle School, St. Louis, Mo., includes fossil imprints and geometric forms that reinforce science and math lessons while allowing students and teachers to interact outdoors. This expands students’ perception of learning spaces beyond traditional classrooms and structured classes.

The result is purposefully designed spaces that maximize group dynamics and collaboration — first for the school and its students, and secondly for the community. The corridors in Lucas Crossing Elementary School for the Normandy School District, a suburban St. Louis district, illustrate how students enjoy the time to interact with their classmates in an uninhibited environment and thereby enhance their academic successes.

In neighborhoods across America, community meetings and visual and performing arts activities occur in areas of local schools that architects design to allow for after-hours uses. These auditoriums, cafetoriums and gymnasiums are all designed to be both integrated in some ways and at some times and yet be flexible enough to operate independently from the school portion of the building at other times. Larry G. Smith Elementary for Dallas Independent School District in suburban Dallas demonstrates that neighborhood pride can be exhibited in gathering spaces serving as the auditorium, classroom wings and media center. The central atrium becomes the heart of the school … and the neighborhood.

This can be a real balance, especially since the notion of educational space itself continues to evolve and improve for the sake of today’s student of any age. Open discussion and collaboration within educational environments augment the lessons delivered by the teaching professionals. These spaces are designed with user input to garner the best impact, integrate appropriate technology and offer spaces for academic support, class, study, research and small and large group learning.

One of the most successful concepts is what I term “serendipity spaces.”

The Face of Today’s Educational Space
Serendipity spaces are areas that encourage impromptu conversations between colleagues, or a teacher and student, or a coach and a student or between one student and another. This calls for widened corridors and seating areas adjacent to windows or atriums. During the course of the day, as the students and teachers circulate through the facility, someone sees them and has the opportunity to pull them aside and have a quick conversation. These conversations form the basis for greater collaboration and open the door to even greater understanding. These spaces foster team-based learning for students and offer a high accommodation factor for after-hours use by community groups.

One other consideration cannot be overlooked. Current and future students, from kindergarten through high school, are more technologically savvy than their predecessors. Elementary and secondary school support this as an important inclusion for a well-rounded education — both for educating students attuned to multi-media capabilities and to take full advantage of instructional benefits offered by technology. Today’s students have grown up on steady diets of YouTube, Smartphones and gaming systems. In our media-hungry society, classrooms should provide the backbone to support multi-media instruction. However, this does require a balance, of sorts. Facility planning must not forfeit the power of verbal communications and personal interactions. Although students will say they are socially connected, good strategic planning for school buildings must foster the discussion and interpersonal exchange of ideas and should not be displaced by technology’s ever increasing omnipresence.

Darren L. James, AIA, is president and COO of KAI Texas, LC. James can be reached at 214/742-0400 or