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Design an adaptive learning ecosystem

Fremont Middle School builds the Wildcat DEN (Designing, Exploring and Networking)
  • THIS IS WHERE WE LEARN NOW— Both teachers and students at Fremont Middle School use the Wildcat DEN, including its Mediascape space for presenting lessons on monitors (top).
  • WE HAVE MORE SPACE TO LEARN NOW—  By Fremont Middle School deciding to replace one wall of the Wildcat DEN with sliding glass doors, the two areas across the hall now flow together.

Years ago, educators at Fremont Middle School in Illinois provided students with engaging projects. Students sat on floors and gathered in hallways, vestibules and staircases, says Joan Shanahan, Fremont School District’s technology integration specialist.

But not until the 2015-16 school year did teachers have designated areas where students could work on assignments comfortably or have access to digital technology.

With the help of the state Capital Development Board, maintenance staff and a planning committee made up of school officials, Fremont Middle School transformed part of its building into 11 spaces so students could work in a variety of environments. The space was honored as a District Administration District of Distinction in 2016.

Named after the school mascot, the Wildcat DEN (Designing, Exploring and Networking) is a bookstore-like setting filled with art on walls, couches, “mushroom chairs” and tables with benches. Students have access to lap desks, interactive whiteboards, wall-mounted monitors, Apple TVs and a cart filled with 30 MacBooks.

Today, students work in the DEN before, during and after school, and teachers hold classes there. “It’s a very versatile, comfortable space that’s limited only by what teachers think to do,” says Pam Motsenbocker, Fremont Middle School principal.

The genesis

Shanahan saw the idea at another district school, Deer Path Middle School.

So with the principal’s support, Shanahan found the perfect area at Fremont: a computer lab next to a large storage room, with a media center across the hall. The centrally located rooms were big enough for the project.

A school committee was created to plan and identify the space’s goals. It consisted of Shanahan, Motsenbocker, Superintendent Jill Gildea, who managed the project on behalf of Fanning Howey architects, and Dan Wagner, the buildings and grounds director who managed construction.

The build

In February 2014, Fremont School District 79 received $10.6 million in State Capital Development Board funds from a grant application for constructing another middle school in 2007.

The district used $800,000 to renovate and transform the middle school’s storage room and to restore the computer lab during summer 2015.

The media center was updated the following summer, in time for the first day of school in August 2016. Walls were repainted, and windows, carpets and more energy-efficient lights were installed in classrooms.

Architects also modernized the computer lab’s heating and cooling vents and replaced a wall in the media center with sliding doors so the rooms would flow together, says Shanahan.

Knocking down every wall wasn’t an option. The school, built in 1956, contains many load-bearing walls. But architects used them in a creative way—they built tables into the walls so students could have more space to work, and they had to remove about 50 lockers to make room.

A good problem to have

The DEN is now the hub of the building, with about 50 of the school’s 700 students staying after school to work there each day.

One to two staff members arrive to Fremont early or stay late after classes to supervise students, and a new bus is scheduled to bring students home after most other students have already gone.

Administration also had to limit when certain grades could use the DEN because there weren’t enough supervisors to handle the increased flow of students using the space.

Looking forward

To emulate the project on a low budget, districts should start small by transforming the corner of a classroom with a new couch, yoga ball or wobbly chair, Shanahan says. “Students want to stand up and move around like teachers do,” she explains.

Next, teachers should think about including high-tech devices to engage learners. If students react positively to these changes, then it could be time to start thinking bigger.

Fremont plans to expand DEN, and administrators will get input from students—who usually want additional space and different types of furniture. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to drive the project,” says Motsenbocker, “but we need to stay focused on their needs. It’s why we’re here.”