Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Schools’ Design Can Play Role in Safety, Student Engagement

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 04, 2013 4 min read

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.' "

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