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Making technological advances and new teaching strategies

Adaptable and energy-efficient learning spaces provide flexibility for the future
  • Washington Elementary School, Sacramento City USD Sacramento, CA: After being closed for two years due to declining enrollment and budget cuts, the school reopened with a new STEAM layout. Indoor and outdoor tech-compatible areas feature open space and custom-designed maker tables. Every four classrooms share storage and planning space. The school has a locomotive theme (“Full STEAM ahead!”), and small tubular nooks throughout the school allow students to study and read privately. (Dave Fennema).
  • Riverhead High School, Riverhead Central School District, Riverhead, NY: A recent $32 million expansion/renovation includes a two-story addition. It houses a new main entry and 8 adv. science classrooms. The original building, built in the '50s, had physical limitations, such as smaller lab spaces. Designers expanded science classrooms, added new biology/chemistry lecture labs and replaced all the windows to boost energy efficiency and to beautify the exterior. (Tom Sibley/Wilk Marketing Communications).
  • Frederick County Middle School, Frederick County Public Schools, Winchester, VA: Designers organized the school into 9 flexible, aesthetically simple and technology-enabled spaces. Each room has moveable furniture—including couches, high tables and bean bags—that can be arranged in combinations for group collaborations and independent study. Natural light pours into the 185,000-square-foot building, which opened in fall 2016 and also includes an astronomy lab and a gym with a fitness loft. (Tom Holdsworth).
  • Jordan Middle School, Jordan Public School District, Jordan, MN: The district transformed its 50-year-old middle school into a flexible learning environment capable of supporting a STEAM program by adding more than 12,000 square feet of classroom space. The roof was raised 15 feet higher, and two academic clusters were created—one for grades 5 and 6, the other for grades 7 and 8. Each cluster has 10 classrooms and three science-friendly multipurpose rooms with movable furniture. (Brandon Stengel).
  • Lee Magnet High School, East Baton Rouge Parish School System, Baton Rouge, LA: The new school, designed as a college-style campus, has four buildings—three academies and a commons area. Each 400-student academy covers an area of study: STEM, biomedical, and digital arts or media. The school’s 3,000-square-foot tech-ready class spaces and specialized labs support project-based learning. There are floor-to-ceiling moveable glass walls, large common areas and smaller nooks. (Michael Robinson).
  • Kodiak High School, Kodiak Island Borough School District Kodiak, AK: The sole high school in the Kodiak Island community focuses on preparing students to join the local commercial fishing, healthcare and aerospace industries. During a recent renovation, a new wing and a large entry canopy were added (to protect against weather) and ocean views were maximized. A two-story cascading commons was included. Administrators also added a new library, science labs, and art and music rooms. (Ken Graham).
  • Beacon High School, NYC Public Schools, NYC: Beacon High School, located in Manhattan’s theater district, was converted in 2015 from a '20s factory/warehouse into a seven-floor, 235,000-square-foot educational facility. The building houses performing arts venues, including an auditorium, dance studio, a basic black box theater, and music/choir rooms. Classrooms ring the perimeter of the building (for natural lighting), and the corridors have glazed walls to brighten interior spaces. (John Ciardullo P.C).
  • Roots Elementary, Denver Public Schools, Denver, Colorado: Roots Elementary K5 charter school in Denver, opened in fall 2015, has a makerspace, flexible work areas and designated reading and writing spaces. The space has smaller group and student coaching rooms as well as a larger 30-seat classroom. (Frank Ooms, courtesy of OZ Architecture.)
  • Roots Elementary, Denver Public Schools, Denver, Colorado: Students at Roots Elementary K5 charter school in Denver spend much of the day in The Grove, a large, multifunctional space where they work independently or in small groups on projects aligned to personal learning plans. (Frank Ooms, courtesy of OZ Architecture.)

The latest K12 school designs in classrooms favor versatile and adaptive spaces to support blended and project-based learning, as well as other progressive education techniques.

Despite the financial challenges districts face, an estimated $41 billion was spent in 2016 on K12 construction and renovation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Renovation projects outnumber new building efforts by 2-to-1, although fresh construction is on the rise, according to the 2017 School Facilities and Construction report from School Planning & Management magazine.

With limited budgets, districts look to maximize capital investments, often relying on spending cuts made in other sectors by local municipalities.

Large, open classrooms with easily movable furniture continue to be popular as part of “an intense desire to make learning spaces flexible or future proof,” says Jason Lembke, K12 education leader and principal at DLR Group, an integrated design and architecture firm.  

The prominence of technology and blended instruction continues to affect design. For example, some districts have installed floating floor systems so utilities can be altered to make way for new technology without significant capital cost, says Lembke.

Other schools have carved out tech-free zones to provide students and educators distraction-free refuges.

Recent construction models reflect the eagerness to develop STEM/STEAM programs, with an increase in makerspaces, special labs and experiment-friendly classrooms. And more schools are creating areas where students can gather and collaborate as project-based learning continues to spread. Specially designed nooks and study spots are proving popular with learners.

Sustainability also remains a growing influence. Previous energy-efficient designs sometimes sacrificed aesthetics and the teaching environment to drive down costs. Recent layouts—marked by more appealing features such as larger windows that let in an abundance of natural light—achieve a better balance.

Overall, district administrators are customizing to suit their schools’ distinctive needs as they become savvier about the impact of building design on education. “Schools are about placemaking,” says Lembke, suggesting a growing desire for uniqueness. “The days of ‘I visited this facility and I really want to copy it’ are coming to an end.”


Ray Bendici is special projects editor.