Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Schools’ Design Can Play Role in Safety, Student Engagement

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 04, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A building alone does not create a school culture. But research shows that school buildings can affect students’ morale and academic performance. Now, school officials are moving away from the “cells and bells” design marked by long, locker-lined hallways of windowless classrooms, and toward more open, flexible buildings aimed at creating a sense of community and collaboration.

Such new designs tie together a shift to a more technology-driven, collaborative, student-centered approach to education with an effort to improve students’ safety, engagement, and community.

The goal is to get students feeling more invested in their school communities; improved student engagement is thought to be tied to fewer discipline problems.

With that in mind, design firms strive to include student voices even in the design process, says Irene Nigaglioni, an architect with the Houston-based firm PBK. And the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International’s highest award goes to a school building for which the planning process has met specific community needs.

Fostering Connections

Increasingly, the spaces themselves are designed to foster student connection. Traditional cafeterias in some schools have been replaced with more café-like areas where students might work and eat at the same time. Windows are opened to improve daytime lighting and indoor-air quality. Hallways are broadened and lockers removed to reduce clutter and chaos.

Many newer buildings also are “more learning-focused, less teacher-focused,” says Craig Mason, an architect with the DLR Group, based in Overland Park, Kan. Some school buildings include breakout spaces for students to meet in small groups, or have windows specifically so a group can work outside while still being supervised.

In recent years, many schools have created smaller communities within larger schools so students don’t risk being anonymous, says Lorne McConachie, an architect at Bassetti Architects, a Seattle-based firm that specializes in renovating historic schools.

At Holt Elementary School in Eugene, Ore., glass walls and connected classrooms have changed the teaching culture and reduced behavior issues, says Sheldon Berman, the superintendent of the 16,000-student district. “The teaching is public, and the behavior is public, too,” he says.

Design Showcase

Read about three schools taking innovative approaches to school-building design:

Marysville Getchell Campus
The Marysville, Wash., school was designed with a number of guiding principles in mind, and principle No. 1 was relationships.


Joplin Interim High School
After a tornado whipped through Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, rebuilding the high school became a matter of symbolic importance.


Perspectives Charter Schools: Rodney D. Joslin Campus
At this Chicago school, the question of school culture and climate is not a side note—it’s at the core of the school’s mission.

And at the Center for Advanced Professional Studies in Blue Valley, Kan., students spend three hours a day in a business-inspired world, with meeting rooms rather than classrooms.

At the Marysville Getchell School Campus, home to four smaller schools in Marysville, Wash., the building was renovated to have a small-school focus, which Superintendent Larry Nyland connects to a 20 percent increase in the graduation rate and a reduction in disciplinary action.

Addressing Perceptions

There can be a tension between traditional perceptions of safety and the openness that marks many of the newer buildings. But open schools can also be safe, says Amy Yurko, the founder of Chicago-based design-consulting firm BrainSpaces. When schools interpret safety to mean thick cinder block walls, “you’ve almost ... created a culture and environment where kids don’t feel known and can get disenfranchised,” she says.

Kimberlie Day, the founder of Perspectives Charter Schools in Chicago, says her school’s decision not to include a metal detector was met with some resistance in the community. But, she says, “students buying into community and being a citizen has more of an impact on individual safety than any metal detector has.”

In fact, some of the features used to promote collaboration and technology—no lockers in which to hide things, or to store textbooks when students are using tablet computers instead—can be directly linked to safety design principles like Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, a set of design strategies first developed in Florida in the 1970s by criminologist C. Ray Jeffery.

Many schools are designed with CPTED principles, which include managing access to buildings, creating natural borders and clear surveillance, and ensuring visibility within buildings. Many of the principles dovetail with the increased openness of buildings.

“Budgets for security officers have been decimated,” says Randy Atlas, the president of Atlas Security & Safety Design, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Architecture is even more important to prevent horrific events.”

Extending the Honeymoon

New school buildings or renovations often come with a honeymoon phase, says McConaghie, the Seattle architect.

But Jo Ann Freiberg, an education consultant in Hartford, Conn., says that even in older buildings and those with aging renovations, simple actions like posting student work and making sure the building is well maintained can help keep the climate positive.

Angie Besendorf, an assistant superintendent in the 7,500-student Joplin, Mo., district, says discipline problems in the city’s high school have declined since a deadly tornado struck Joplin in 2011, destroying the old high school building.

“Part of that is the space, and the pride that they took in this space,” she says of the new school. “They felt valued. Kids said things like, ‘We really know you cared about our education, because you built us this.' "

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Opinion Schools Have Put Their Money on Security Officers. Is That Smart?
After school shootings, people want policymakers to "do something." But is hiring more law enforcement the right thing?
David S. Knight
5 min read
Illustration of two silhouetted heads facing each other, one is wearing a police hat
wildpixel/iStock/Getty Images
School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center How Many Teachers Have Been Assaulted by Students or Parents? We Asked Educators
Some teachers and principals suggest student misbehavior could be associated with challenges related to returning to in-person learning.
1 min read
Empty classroom in blurred background.
Classrooms were empty during long stretches of remote and hybrid instruction. Some educators suggest student behavior problems are linked to the bumpy transition back to in-person learning.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety A Sheriff Is Putting AR-15s in Every School. What Safety Experts Have to Say
The Madison County, N.C., school district made headlines for placing assault rifles in SRO offices ahead of the new school year.
6 min read
AR-15-style rifles are on display at Burbank Ammo & Guns in Burbank, Calif., June 23, 2022. Gun manufacturers have made more than $1 billion from selling AR-15-style guns over the past decade, and for two companies those revenues have tripled over the last three years, a House investigation unveiled Wednesday, July 27, found.
AR-15-style rifles are on display at gun store in Burbank, Calif. School safety experts say it's not unheard of for school districts to place such weapons in schools, but it requires serious consideration of the potential risks.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School Climate & Safety 3 Reasons Many Schools Don't Have Classroom Doors That Lock From the Inside
School facilities experts explain why what seems like a simple school-security is not so simple.
2 min read
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testifies at a Texas Senate hearing at the state capitol, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Two teachers and 19 students were killed in the mass shooting in Uvalde.
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen during a Texas Senate hearing on the deadly shooting there.
Eric Gay/AP