Designs For Change

Architecture students at MIT reconfigure the traditional school

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Imagine a neighborhood school that blends seamlessly into the city landscape. Students and citizens alike might share a public garden, a library, or a performing-arts center. There might even be housing for senior citizens or college students who could serve as mentors to the young schoolchildren. Maybe teachers would have their own offices. And to provide an extra margin of safety, these offices, and those of administrators, would have glass walls overlooking the school entrances and common areas so the staff members could keep watch over the comings and goings.

These are a few of the ideas that have come out of a project begun last year by the architecture department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Known as the New American School Design Project, the three- to five-year effort is aimed at creating schools that reflect the current thinking in school reform.

“As America focuses on the school, very little attention has been paid to the design of school buildings themselves,” Roy Strickland, the MIT architecture professor who heads the project, writes in the fall 1994 issue of Teachers College Record. “As yet, no model has emerged as the equal of the turn-of-the-century urban school or the post-World War II suburban school even though the need to create new models is as strong now as it was 50 and 100 years ago.”

Not much is known about how the design of a school can affect learning. “The research is really quite limited,” says Harold Hawkins, a retired Texas A&M University professor who unsuccessfully tried several years ago to create national interest in the subject.

But if ever there was a time to pay attention to the subject, it is now. Studies show that the country’s school buildings are in sad shape. One 1991 report suggests, in fact, that one in eight schools nationwide is physically “inadequate for education.” And large school districts, such as those in Atlanta, New York, and Las Vegas, are now looking to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to replace deteriorating buildings.

Strickland first tried his hand at designing schools at the request of several New York City parent groups that were looking for alternatives to school-building proposals the school board was considering. While much of that effort is now in limbo, Strickland says his work was well-received.

When he came to MIT in 1992, Strickland suggested that the architecture school make school design part of its curriculum. The New American School Design Project was launched in 1993 with funding from MIT’s Trust in Diversity and the Ernest A. Grunsfeld Fund. In its first year, the project sponsored a conference that drew 200 architects, educators, and parents to examine the link between design and school reform. Strickland also created a school-design studio where graduate students could draft plans for schools in different kinds of settings, such as the inner city, suburbs, or rural areas. School officials in Berkeley, Calif., contracted the studio to provide ideas for reconfiguring the city school system.

But the students focused first on designing a hypothetical inner-city K-12 school for nearby Boston. They chose two blocks that straddled a couple of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—Roxbury and the South End. In preparation for the project, they consulted with teachers in a residential program at the university. They read the works of education thinkers and reformers, such as John Dewey, Deborah Meier, and Sara Lawrence Lightfoot. And they looked at the way buildings other than schools combined public and private spaces. They even studied the designs for a monastery, English country houses, and the social clubs that popped up in this country earlier in the century.

“A good school building is like a good house—or a hotel for kids and teachers—in that it has a variety of spaces that provides a variety of opportunities for interaction,” Strickland says. “If we thought of schools as providing houses for people with that kind of richness of space and variety of activities, then we’d be designing much different buildings from the ones we have.”

The students drew several conclusions from their research. First, their inner-city school designs should be for small neighborhood schools attended by children from the time they entered kindergarten—or earlier—until they graduated from 12th grade. “We thought this was an interesting issue because older and younger kids might learn from each other and might establish a relationship with the school over time,” Strickland explains. What’s more, he says, a principal in Roxbury has found that parents don’t want their children to leave her K-8 school to go on to high school.

The architecture students also decided the spaces they designed had to be flexible. Classrooms, for example, should open into one another for large group activities. But there also should be small, quiet spaces where students can go to work independently. And teachers should have offices. “We don’t ask other professionals to walk around with a book and park wherever it’s convenient,” Strickland says.

All of the school buildings, the students concluded, should be organized around a central courtyard and integrated in some way into the life of the city around them.

With these features in mind, the students developed seven design schemes. One plan included a dormitory and gymnasium that would open onto the street so the public could have easy access to the facilities. But it limited access to the courtyard, which would serve as sort of an outdoor common for the school. With different levels and other landscaping details, the courtyard would provide an area where young children could play on their own but still be within sight of older students.

The plan’s most unusual feature was that it set aside two buildings where students and teachers could live. When the graduate students asked some of the MIT teacher-fellows if they’d be willing to live on-site at a school, some said they’d consider it. “If we’re extending schools for longer periods and offering housing for some homeless students, it certainly would be a good idea to have more adults present,” Strickland says. “Some elderly people might also be interested in living near kids and providing services and guidance.” What’s more, students enrolled at area colleges and universities could reside at the school and serve as tutors, maybe even getting class credit for the time they spend with students.

Another plan placed a public library above the auditorium and featured a small plaza in front where citizens could come and go independently from the rest of the school. Others made the school more of a center for the neighborhood and provided spaces for job counseling, day care, and health services that the entire community could use. Some did away with the long corridors found in most schools and instead clustered classrooms around small courtyards. In most of the plans, stairways were widened so they could be used for informal gatherings.

The most highly integrated of the designs called for a school that would blend into a community garden. A gatekeeper would open the garden to the public every morning, and students in the upper grades would attend classrooms interspersed among the greenhouses, where they would work as part of their school experience. The plan also included retail stores where students could sell the produce they grow.

“In Boston, there is a rich tradition of neighborhood gardens, carried over from the World War II victory gardens,” Strickland says. “Also, this came about through discussions on what kids like to do and reading John Dewey’s theories of learning by doing—putting their hands in the earth, making things that might also be sold, and developing a relationship with the surrounding community.”

This year, Strickland’s graduate students have set their sights on a middle school in suburban Belmont, Mass. Although the setting is different from the Boston school, many of the issues they are dealing with are the same. “In the inner city, families depend on institutions and social services,” he says. “In the suburbs, the rise of women in the work force and two-income families have also created situations in which families are increasingly dependent on external support. It’s an opportunity to look at schools as the increasing focus in the lives of families and the lives of kids. Buildings built in the ‘50s and ‘60s don’t address problems of the city or realities of middle-class life in the suburbs.”

What Strickland and his students have not done is figure out how much it would cost to build their designs. The students have, however, based their creations on the assumption that most classrooms should accommodate 30 students, and they used conventional specifications for the overall size of classrooms and other school facilities.

Although no district has plans to build real schools with the project’s designs, officials in Berkeley say the architecture students have given them a number of good ideas. For example, the district intends to use a project-designed desegregation plan that divides the school system into three crescent-shaped zones, says associate superintendent Nancy Spaeth. “They also gave us the idea that schools should be less like institutions and more like homes,” she says, a concept the district is incorporating into its plans for three new schools.

Strickland points out that the purpose of the project was never to get its designs built. “Our attempt in this effort,” he says, “is to provide a series of patterns and design concepts that can be discussed by educators.”

Vol. 06, Issue 04, Pages 19-21

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