Building Blueprints

New Spaces for a New Era of Learning

Winton Woods School District debuts two campuses designed around project-based learning.

This August, Winton Woods School District—a culturally inclusive, minority-majority, open enrollment school district serving approximately 4,000 students in southwest Ohio—opened the doors to two cutting-edge campuses that turn “traditional” education on its head. While the campuses are innovative in their own right, they represent more than just a new home for the Winton Woods Warriors. They represent the beginning of a journey that is more than 10 years in the making.

students sitting in auditorium area 

© JOE HARRISON, JH PHOTOGRAPHY INC.

In 2011, the district transformed its pedagogical approach to education. In partnership with the New Tech Network, Winton Woods moved to project-based learning (PBL); since then, PBL has been adopted at all grade levels, making Winton Woods the first school district in the country to embrace PBL from preschool through twelfth grade.

Yet even with major improvements, the district’s crumbling, outdated and temporary classroom spaces couldn’t accommodate the depth of instruction and engagement required for PBL to improve educational outcomes. Specifically designing spaces to support its pedagogical approach, the district argued, would both accelerate the successful adoption of PBL and drive 21st-century collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity skills.

It was with this argument in mind that taxpayers in 2016 approved a plan to consolidate the district’s six buildings into two campuses—one for grades 1-6 and one for grades 7-12—and $93.5 million to fund it. By 2017, Winton Woods had hired architect and design firm SHP to guide the district through the community engagement, educational visioning, architectural design and construction processes. Construction finally began in 2019.

Student Voice, Student Choice

Student voice is a cornerstone of PBL. As such, the district and SHP recognized the students themselves were in the unique position of having the deepest insight into how their new learning spaces needed to function. After all, students had already experienced PBL in a traditional school setting. They knew the challenges.

Students, therefore, became a critical part of the design process. Involving them early and often capitalized on their experiences and gave voice to their ideas and needs. SHP tapped into a range of students from across the district to ensure that both student creativity and student ownership were present.

Starting with the educational visioning process, SHP examined six shifts in education that would drive the design: academic excellence, community connections, monitoring, assessment and accountability, teaching that engages and outcomes that matter. In addition, SHP adapted its educational visioning process to the hallmarks of PBL instruction: a driving question, knows and need-to-knows, project authenticity, public presentation(s) and student agency. Adopting the same approach as students experienced in the classroom grounded the process in real-world challenges; it made the outcomes real.

Several foundational needs quickly emerged from this effort. Students emphasized their desires for collaboration, a student-centric culture, fun learning opportunities, small and large workshops, student movement, active engagement and technology in all its forms.

Four Overarching Themes

The educational visioning process took the students’ very literal ideas and abstracted them down to their core meanings. As SHP began designing, these themes became the basis of the design.

  • Eat & Learn
    Students wanted to grab a snack or eat lunch when they were hungry. They wanted control of their day. And they didn’t see a reason why eating and learning couldn’t happen together. The goal was a comfortable, multi-use learning environment that supported a student-centric culture—one that empowered them with trust, respect and autonomy. The result is distributed dining, an eat-where-you-like experience that brings the food to the kids and redistributes square footage previously used for a cafeteria to directly support learning.
  • Present & Educate
    Showcasing student work is intrinsic to PBL. Students wanted transparent and connected learning communities for curating, sharing and presenting their work, with various venues at various scales. The goal was to leverage formal gathering and presentation spaces and less predictable, informal ones, too. The result is a learning stair, hands-on labs and abundant display cases and boards.
  • Inside & Outside
    A connection to nature was important to the students—and was more about social-emotional well-being than digging in the dirt. The goal was to be able to step outside, relax and breathe. The result is abundant daylighting, operable and floor-to-ceiling windows, patios, outdoor connectors and an indoor/outdoor courtyard.
  • Community & Culture
    The desire to create an environment for show-and-tell spoke to the culture the students valued for their new school. Spaces for performing arts, athletics, socialization and community-building dominated the students’ plans. The result is learning pods, a Hall of Flags, a spirit store, collegiate-level performance spaces, public green space/outdoor event venues and a consistent blue and green color scheme. In the primary school building, an on-site community clinic operated by a third-party healthcare provider will support broader health and wellness initiatives.
school hallway 

© JOE HARRISON, JH PHOTOGRAPHY INC.

Two Campuses, One Design

The North campus comprises a $44-million, 248,000-square-foot building that serves 1,600 students in grades 7 through 12. Meanwhile, the $37-million, 206,000-square-foot South campus presently serves 1,600 elementary school students in grades 1-6 but can accommodate up to 1,900 students as the district grows.

The schools are nearly identical in design, ensuring there will be consistent experiences as students matriculate between schools. In the middle and high school (North) campus, each wing serves a different age group: seventh and eighth graders in one and ninth through twelfth graders in the other. In the South campus, three learning communities (grouped by grade level) radiate outward from a central office.

On both campuses, each wing is anchored by a prominent set of natural-light-filled learning stairs where students gather for lunch, project collaboration, instruction and social activities. Restaurant-style booths and mixedheight cafe tables replace the standard cafeteria seating.

When it comes to classroom instruction, both campuses include a combination of large seminar-style classrooms, smaller studios—each with operable walls that can double the learning space—project labs and shared collaboration zones that can flex in infinite ways. Rather than “owning” classrooms, instructors across all grade levels share all instructional spaces within their respective wings. Teachers are assigned desks in larger co-working spaces where they are encouraged to collaborate amongst each other.

A variety of showcase spaces allow students to display artwork, projects, school memorabilia and the like. Exposed ductwork, polished concrete floors, warm wood tones, large windows, inlaid casework and a blue-and-green color scheme are featured throughout.

That’s not to say there aren’t nuances that support each campuses’ specific needs—again, driven by student input. For instance, the North campus includes tech desks inspired by the Apple Genius Bar, where students can get tech help from their peers. The first floor features a “Hall of Flags” representing all 31 countries from which students hail, as well as an outdoor courtyard with a life-sized chessboard. Corridors and lockers were intentionally minimized to dedicate more space to instruction and project displays.

On the South campus, one of two gymnasiums opens to a huge, shared outdoor courtyard and performance space with stage. Cozy nooks are tucked under staircases and in the media center to appeal to different learning and recreation activities. In addition, only minor administrative duties are performed in the central office; principals’ offices have instead been disbursed throughout the building to allow for in-the-moment course correction or student-teacher-administrator conferences.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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