Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Chicago School Designed With Blended Learning in Mind

By Bryan Toporek — April 13, 2015 9 min read
On the Intrinsic Schools’ Chicago campus, each grade has two interconnected classrooms, or “pods,” with their own functions.
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On the first permanent campus of the Intrinsic Schools, the physical design of the building is meant to play an integral part in blended learning.

Visitors to the charter school operator’s 60,000-square-foot space, a former lumberyard that was gutted and reopened this school year as an educational center on the city’s northwest side, see students and teachers working in different, interconnected classrooms, known as “pods,” divided up by function and subject area.

In one section of the pod, teachers lead groups of students through lessons. In another area, students work independently on Google Chromebooks using a mix of software programs. A few paces away, students collaborate on lessons or read independently, depending on the day. Another space can be reorganized to accommodate college-lecture type lessons, individualized instruction, and everything in between.

Education leaders and architects have for years touted the benefits of designing schools to mesh with their academic missions—and to create healthy environments for students. The new Intrinsic campus, located in the working class Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, reflects that same philosophy, and one school’s interest in using blended learning and technology to support teaching and learning.

Since planning for the school began two years ago, Intrinsic officials have cleared numerous obstacles, including finding a location for its first permanent campus and overcoming clashes between its theoretical design and practical use. In addition, the original model for Intrinsic needed to be fine-tuned so that each space would play a role in helping the school—in which students rotate through classrooms holding up to 65 students—achieve its instructional goals. The experimentation, and revision continues today.

School officials around the country looking for lessons from the Chicago school or from similar educational models need to create plans that meet the priorities of their students, teachers, and communities—not to attempt to satisfy some abstract ideal, those who know school design say.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is not to design for the next hot trend,” said Greg H. Monberg, the director of design research for Fanning Howey, a national architecture/engineering firm in South Bend, Ind., specializing in K-12 schools. “It’s not about chasing an idea and saying, ‘Oh, they did a blended classroom over here. We need to replicate that at our place.’ ”

The overriding goal should be to “design for real flexibility,” he said, so that educators and students can “do things educationally they couldn’t before.”

Intrinsic was launched with the help of a planning grant from the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that invests in the independent, public schools. That money allowed its founders to visit schools around the country and refine their model.

10th Grade Math Classroom

This 360-degree photo sphere shows the “Big Board” and “Little Board” areas of a 10th grade Math classroom, the most traditional of all the pod areas. A teacher leads small-group discussions or lessons, using an overhead projector with students seated in “Node chairs.” Having both boards in each pod allows one teacher to conduct a lesson at the Big Board while another teacher leads a small-group session at the Little Board, such as a meeting for students needing extra help, or those moving at an advanced pace.

Tech Landscape

Leaders of the school say one of their main goals is to give students greater ownership over their learning, through technology and other means. Students spend roughly 50 percent of their time working on Chromebooks, using programs designed by providers such as Khan Academy, Thinkcerca, and NoRedInk. Some instruction is teacher-led, while other lessons are collaborative or based on small-group discussions.

The school spent its first academic year, in 2013-14, on the sixth floor of a renovated office building in Chicago’s “Loop” neighborhood. Planning for the permanent campus, including the purchase of the Belmont property, took place around that same time.

Construction of the new school cost just over $19 million, which Intrinsic covered largely through an independent loan. The Next Generation Learning Challenges, a competitive program that seeks to support education innovation through technology, also contributed $450,000 to Intrinsic, although that money did not go toward site acquisition or construction. The learning challenges are funded through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among other sources. (The foundation also helps support Education Week’s coverage of college- and career-ready standards.)

During the school’s first year in the Loop location, teachers had broad flexibility in how they used classroom space, furniture, and technology. But they discovered that a lack of anchors, or fixed spaces devoted to certain kinds of learning, undermined students’ ability to focus.

Teachers relayed those concerns to the school’s chief architect, Larry P. Kearns, which allowed him to alter plans for the Belmont campus.

Having that incubation year was “a huge, huge benefit,” said Mr. Kearns, a principal of Wheeler Kearns Architects, based in Chicago. “It disproved some of the theories that were developed speculatively, thinking that things would work, and it really didn’t.”

School leaders are expanding the student population at Belmont by grade level. It currently serves grades 7, 9, and 10, and will expand to grades 7-12 in the next two years. The vast majority of the school’s students are from low-income families and are either Hispanic or African-American. Intrinsic chooses its students using a randomized lottery, although school officials try to enroll as many neighborhood students as possible.

Intrinsic’s Belmont campus is designed to use different areas within each classroom for different styles of learning—from traditional, teacher-led instruction to small-group collaboration and digitally based personalized learning.

Each grade has two interconnected classrooms, or “pods,” based on subject matter—one for English/language arts and one devoted to math. Within each 90-minute class period, students rotate between different sections of the room, all of which serve a specific purpose in the school’s blended-learning model.

9th Grade Math Classroom

This 360-degree photo sphere highlights “The Shade,” a group of tables clustered together under a large lampshade-like fixture, located between the Coastline and the Big Board/Little Board. This is where students work collaboratively on small-group projects or confer with peers if they need extra help.

Within each pod, different sections of the classrooms serve their own functions, some of them closely resembling those of a traditional school, others representing a major break from the norm.

Areas known as the “Big Board” and “Little Board” host teacher-led discussions.

A set of tables known as the “Coastline,” where students engage in personalized learning, wraps around the perimeter of the room.

Nearby, other sections known as the “Shade” and the “Exchange,” serve their own, distinct functions.

Each pod serves upwards of 65 students at a time, with two co-teachers and one special-education teacher working in tandem with one another. Ashley S. Haywood, a 9th grade English/language arts teacher at Intrinsic, specifically praised the school’s co-teaching model, especially for newer educators. “It makes it so none of us can totally fail,” Ms. Haywood said. “You have all these other adults in the room to support you.”

Intrinsic also features other, more traditional classroom spaces: Each grade level, for instance, has a science lab within its pods, with fixed lab tables. Each grade’s pods also contain a “Seminar Room,” where social sciences are held and with small tables on wheels that can be easily moved. Depending on the need, teachers can set up the space to look like a small-scale version of a college lecture hall, or used for 1-on-1 or small-group instruction.

Mike Walsh, the school’s department chair of social science and a 9th-grade world studies teacher, changes the look of his seminar room from day to day.

“We don’t generally do anything for more than 15 minutes at a time,” Mr. Walsh said. “We do a lot of moving around and different types of activities.”

The layout makes it easier to tailor instructional strategies to students with different academic needs, school officials say. Tyrese Wetzel, a 10th grader at the school, noted the difference he’s seen in his brother, Tyjuan, a 7th grader who transferred to Intrinsic this academic year.

“In his old classes, he wasn’t paying attention because it wasn’t challenging,” the teenager said. “Here, the school challenges him and he’s on a roll right now.”

Before attempting to design and build schools with academic goals in mind, using technology or other means, school officials must first have a clear sense of what their instructional goals are, and how the physical environment will contribute to them, said Tom G. Carroll, a Design for Learning senior fellow at the American Architectural Foundation, in Washington.

“Start with the function, start with the learning activity you’re trying to facilitate or support,” he said, “and then make the space support that.”

9th Grade English/Language Arts Classroom

This 360-degree photo sphere shows the “Seminar Room,” a room with a number of movable tables, which teachers can reorganize based on planned activities. The space, used mostly for social science lessons, can be set up as a small-scale version of a college lecture hall, or as a smaller version of the pod, with a centrally located Shade and tables mimicking the Coastline on the perimeter

Questions of Scale

San Diego’s e3 Civic High School, located on two floors of the new San Diego Central Library, has fashioned a look to match its academic ambitions. Helen V. Griffith, executive director of e3, as it is known, believes traditional school buildings don’t necessarily preclude schools from thinking differently about how space is used, but that those environments require “a visionary leader” or a group of teachers capable of pushing for innovation.

“If you look at the school in terms of ‘How can we best use all of these spaces and use them in a different way?’, then you can scale up,” Ms. Griffith said.

Many school officials have sought to redesign their schools without building a campus from scratch like Intrinsic did. The Washington-based Horace Mann Elementary School, for instance, renovated its existing building and built two additions to help facilitate across-grade and small-group collaboration.

“Flexibility is absolutely the thing we were aiming for,” said Horace Mann principal Elizabeth Whisnant. “A lot of ability to choose, as teachers and as students.”

Not everyone is sold on the idea that the Intrinsic model is worthy of replication. The Chicago Teachers Union, for instance, which has been critical of charter schools’ growth in the city, was skeptical about Intrinsic’s structure and whether students benefit, said a research facilitator for the union, Sarah J. Hainds.

“Modern design is great. We love that kind of concept,” Ms. Hainds said. “Even with these rotating stations, we’re still very leery of having so many children in a classroom.”

Melissa Zaikos, a founder of Intrinsic and the principal of the Belmont campus, acknowledges that not every school will have the luxury of a near-$20-million renovation to put in place its vision. And the idea of having 65 students in a single classroom isn’t feasible for many schools. But she believes Intrinsic’s underlying pedagogy can translate to regular public schools.

“I say we’ve failed if this can’t work in a normal school,” Ms. Zaikos said. “I would hate for people to come here and say, ‘I can’t do this because [they don’t have the physical space to accommodate the pods],’ because I don’t think that’s what’s making it work.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as A Charter School Designed For Ed Tech

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