Celebration School and Design Trends: 13 Years Into the Future

In 1997, the “school of the future” — Disney Development Corp.’s (DDC) Celebration School — opened in Orlando. Thirteen years later, what lessons have been learned from the nationally recognized project, and how have they influenced school design? School Planning & Management recently asked Franklin Hill, Ph.D., who served as Celebration’s only educational facility planner, these, and other questions pertinent to school design today. Hill, an internationally recognized educational facility planner and futurist for appropriate educational change, operates Franklin Hill & Associates International in Kirkland, Wash.

SPM: What was the design goal for Celebration School?

There were two parts: To understand and create a school of the future, and to do so within the traditional standards for size and budget set forth by the Florida Department of Education. It was definitely challenging. It proved that practical creative planning can produce schools of the future that are simpler, more dynamic and yet affordable to most school districts nationally.

SPM: How was that two-part design goal futuristic?

Before that can be addressed, there first has to be an understanding of the over-arching situation. Celebration School is part of the city of Celebration, a comprehensively planned futuristic community that includes businesses, parks, healthcare, churches and more. In that light, the bigger question was: What was the vision for the city of the future?

Celebration City planners initially were going to design a traditional school, to which I suggested that, since they were designing a city of the future, shouldn’t they also design a school of the future, especially because education and social circumstances go hand-in-hand. The future of education demanded a different learning environment for success. This opened dialogues with world-renowned educators and technologists to also consider the design and functionality of the building itself to enhance educational change.

By involving nationally recognized educators, DDC acknowledged that educational changes begin with the educator and are education driven, not design driven. Involving progressive national experts is very different than interviewing educators at the local level, who may not have the perspective to know what’s happening internationally, simply because they’re busy educating students. DDC did not hesitate to bring in the best educational thinkers and then moved into design using internationally acclaimed and Boston-based William Rawn Associates, Inc.

One staff member referred to me as an “imagineer,” as I determined how technology, curriculum trends and new functional patterns merged into new and different learning environments, and then translated them into the physical space to function in the most appropriate manner possible.

Traditionally, schools have been divided into three groups: elementary, middle and high schools. Celebration administrators created a K-12 school and asked fundamental questions on how to link learning seamlessly throughout a complete educational continuum. This was a holistic approach to a complex problem.

One answer was to fully integrate small learning communities with differently sized spaces serving different activities, curriculum and technologies in the same or fewer square feet. The small learning community of 100 to 125 students, with teachers working collaboratively, is an international model that emerged from this project. Celebration only had 400 high school students, creating a small school feel, but had 1,200 K-12 students, which created an economy of scale to support the small education enrollment of a high school.

The uniqueness of the small learning community model is that it better connects students and teachers to a more student-centered learning process that can be replicated in schools across America, even in existing facilities. I felt strongly that, if I couldn’t apply the model to every school in America, then it would be an injustice. Everyone would want it, but not everyone could have it, similar to low-hanging fruit that a hungry person can’t quite reach.

SPM: It is 13 years later. How well has the design plan worked for the staff and, more importantly, students at Celebration?

A couple of things have happened.

Celebration began as a very controversial project. It may have happened too quickly, before some staff was ready and able to engage many of the emerging concepts such as teaming, technology integration and resource-based learning. But the vision was right for the 21st century.

Because of the extensive educational uniqueness and media visibility, I suggested that the school be tested by building a mock up in one of DDC’s big buildings. I believe this was done. However, I’m not sure there was adequate staff instruction to embrace the model. It’s not only about the building; it’s about the ability to use it correctly, in terms of technology, curriculum, and student and teacher skill. Specifically, the model may have been tested with technology, students and teachers “of the past,” if you will.

Planning a school of the future physically is easy compared to the critical requirement to train administration, staff and parents on how to successfully use the spaces, programs and technology. Staff training can begin while the building is being planned and designed. Do not wait until the building is opened, as it is then too late, and frustration can build among all of the user groups.

Second, while a K-12 school with only 400 high school students is an appropriate idea, it is not a learning model and configuration that works for most large school districts. Then, other factors come into play, like sports, state funding formulae and adequate peer competition. In fact, when one educational foundation focused exclusively on the concept of small schools of 400, I felt that was too small. Students in today’s world have to compete internationally, and the changing world does not always lay up soft softball pitches. The small school model is appropriate in certain, but not all, cases. In fact, Celebration administrators have recently changed the original facility to a K-8 school, also a good use and characteristic of the flexible design. They are designing a more traditional Florida high school that accommodates 2,000 students. This seems to be working well for Florida, but I might prefer a combination of both, somewhere in the middle.

SPM: Since the opening of Celebration, what advances have been made in school design?

Celebration set benchmarks for the small learning community, for collaboration and integrated environment. So, first I had to prove that small learning environments could be applied to existing buildings since most “schools of the future” are already built. For example, by renovating a double-loaded corridor, and connecting a science lab with a cluster of core classes, districts could carve out a vacant room for guidance, shared use space and other kinds of technology. A double-loaded corridor is opportune to being a remodeled solution of the Celebration small learning communities.

I caution that many schools try to define a learning community as a big wide hall. But open hallways do not provide the intimacy of a living room or enjoyable small group discussion space. When students are traveling from room to room, big hallways do not create a quality learning space. There is too much distraction.

Another emerging trend is integrating technology education (previously Voc Ed), visual arts and hands-on problem solving-programs (HVAC, for example) into the educational core to create a larger holistic learning system. Take a middle school, for example. The first step is a robotics program, with hands-on problem solving, adjacent to the science lab in the core neighborhood. That is being expanded in high school small learning communities to include technology that links to the bigger learning communities, and to create business partnerships and on-site “collaboratorium” spaces.

SPM: What does the future of school design look like today?

Hill: I’m working hard to continually suggest that schools of the future can be less expensive to build, yet more productive educationally. A recently completed school on the East Coast cost $400 per square foot to build. Communities cannot afford that any more — we have to go back to the basics, and design and build more affordably by thinking more creatively and realistically.

If form follows function, then educational leadership has to frame the design argument first. Some design professionals say that they do that, but only on a few occasions has any institution like DDC brought together the best educators to ask: Where is education now going? We need to bring successful futuristic educators into the arena and not leave futuristic change exclusively to architects. I realize that statement may be provocative, but futuristic educators must lead the way.

SPM: What advice do you offer on the future of school design?

Two thoughts. First, when it comes to large hallway resource areas, as a generic commons-like space, it does not work. Specific learning activities should be demonstrated in all spaces during the design development phase to confirm the space actually works for learning.

Second, designing a generic, multi-use and flexible space is not enough. One size does not fit all learners. Detailed itemization of the proposed use of each space will reveal a magnitude of design considerations that can specifically enhance the proposed versatility of a learning space. The impacts of design on cognitive learning is becoming increasingly clear, so orientation of windows, wall color, electrical outlet location, door location, use of multi-zone lighting and even varied ceiling heights should be tested against the various specific uses and technologies proposed for each space.

More “School of the Future” Trends

Here are several more future trends, presented by Franklin Hill, that were addressed in the planning of Celebration School 15 years ago.

Media Center: Celebration fundamentally reinvented the future role of the media center. It redistributed area from a centralized media center to the learning neighborhoods in order to allow additional space for computer information technologies. In actuality, that did not make the media center smaller, but rather, it envisioned the entire school as a seamless information system. This is clearly the case today.

Special Education:
Again, planning moved away from the segregation of special needs students to expand the inclusionary model. The area typically assigned for segregated classrooms was moved into the learning neighborhoods.

Guidance Counseling:
Programmed space was provided to allow small group counseling in the neighborhoods, again to focus on a smaller, student-centered and socially integrated learning system.

Naturally, redistribution of previously segregated educational programs into the neighborhoods enlarged the square feet per student in each neighborhood. The overarching philosophy was a holistic approach to a fully integrated educational, social, technological and environmental learning system.