Instruction Drives Construction

For most educators, the relationship between instruction and facilities is tenuous at best. Many will pass their entire careers adapting how they teach to existing spaces to which they are assigned. Opportunities to shape their environment are typically limited to rearranging furniture and decorating walls. Further, in school districts that have separate departments for instruction, curriculum, and facilities, facilities staff directs the design and building of facilities with little or no input from the instructional personnel that will use them.

Yet, the powerful link between instruction and facilities is not difficult to see. To start, consider the classroom: is it a physical place or a method of instruction? The term“classroom” implies a relationship between students and teachers. It suggests an enclosed space separating one teacher and group of students from other such groups. At the secondary level, it also refers to a single discipline or subject and a fixed measure of time. At every level, however, it implies a space“owned” by a teacher to which students are admitted, suggesting a process of control administered by the teacher. And, when considered in mass, it also implies the proverbial “egg crate” school, with double-loaded corridors lined with identical rooms. Given the clear relationship between instruction and spaces, it’s easy to see why instruction should drive construction. In other words, buildings need to reflect, support and enhance instruction. That’s why the manner in which educators and architects work together is essential to realize that aspiration.

An example of this type of collaboration comes from the Spring Independent School District located about 30 miles north of Houston, TX. Spring ISD was growing very rapidly, and the demands upon instruction and access to technology were evolving. So, in the fall of 2002, Spring ISD initiated a long-range planning process that culminated in a successful $257,000,000 bond election in the fall of 2003.

Spring ISD’s Visioning Process

While demographic projections and facility assessment studies were underway, Spring ISD conducted a “visioning process” for the purpose of examining its core beliefs to create a context within which to plan. The visioning brought together board members, administrators, teachers, community members, and architects/planners for five long Saturday morning workshops over a four-month period. Participants explored broad issues such as the size of schools, grade alignment, class sizes, the organization of instructional programs and spaces, the size of sites, the use of technology, the extent of pre-K programs, the nature of high schools, and specific issues related to the visual and performing arts, athletics, security, transportation, and maintenance.

Spring’s vision was documented in the form of “findings” and “directions.” “Findings” delineated what the district believed, while “directions” were responses stipulating specific actions to be realized in the planning process. At the conclusion of the effort and before the planning work began, Spring’s Board of Trustees formally adopted the vision. During the months that followed, “findings and directions” became part of the district’s vocabulary and were frequently referenced to keep everyone on track.

The following findings and directions related to high schools exemplify the outcomes of the visioning process.

• Having identified a correlation between school size and learning, Spring ISD directed that its high schools should be no larger than 2,500 students. Considering that its two existing high schools had current enrollments of 3,000 and 4,100 students, with projections for very substantial growth in the near future, this was no small decision. The district further determined that its comprehensive high schools should be complemented by a smaller (1,500 student) magnet school.

• The district directed that each of its high schools (existing and new) should be organized around small learning communities (as opposed to departments or disciplines), and that these should serve no more than 600 students in grades 9-12.

• Based upon the finding that the relationship between administrators and students impacts learning, Spring ISD directed to disperse assistant principals and counselors from central offices into the smaller learning communities across each campus.

• The finding that teachers and students need continuous access to information through technology led to the decision to provide 1:1 personal devices to students in grades 3-12 as appropriate to content, instruction, and assessment.

• Recognizing that “schools of choice” can be very attractive to and beneficial for students, the district directed the creation of a high school of choice organized around academies that house academic classes as well as Career and Technology Education (CTE) strands.

In accordance with these findings and directions, the long-range plan called for the creation of a new comprehensive high school for 2,500 students (to open fall 2007) and a high school of choice to serve 1,500 students (to open fall 2006). Both are intended to provide additional capacity to serve the anticipated growth, to reduce the size of the existing schools, and to serve new directions in instruction.

The Chosen Plan: A Career Academy

The school of choice became the Career Academy at Carl Wunsche Senior High School. Wunsche had existed for many years in a small structure, but the new concept was to expand and transform its programs, enrollment and facility. Debi Koch, Wunsche’s principal observed, “Business and career education had been a draw to the district, where students would often travel off campus for this portion of their education. Given the population growth in the district and the growth in the career programs, the district decided to create a comprehensive content where career and core classes intertwined.”

What transpired during a three-year period, from conception to finished facility, was the development of a 273,000 sq,-ft. facility comprised primarily of new construction with extensive renovations to the existing building. The school is organized around three academies:

• legal, business, and child studies;

• technology; and

• medical/biological sciences.

Students spend their ninth-grade school year at one of the district’s comprehensive schools, and then they apply to attend Wunsche for grades 10-12. Once students enroll in a specific academy, they are not allowed to change until the beginning of a new school year. Each academy serves about 500 students. During the course of their high-school experience, students work within their academy with the same teachers and fellow students. Anonymity becomes nonexistent, and personalization becomes key. Each academy integrates its core subjects with the content of real-world career fields. Topics, readings, and projects in core subjects are related to each academy’s career field, providing relevance, engagement, and motivation for students.

The Impact of Space Utilization

Wunsche’s primary circulation space feels more like a shopping mall than a high school corridor, starting with a school store, credit union, and coffee shop (all run by students) interspersed with the library, a cafeteria (food court), and even a water wall. The core of each academy is a two-story central area that is open and flexible for both instruction and projects. This space opens to the mall so that everyone passing by may see the interesting work underway. “The space itself allows students to always peer in on one another to witness the relevance of the content in the coursework that relates to the career. The facility and the instructional setup break down the isolation felt in typical academia,” says Koch.

The uses and configuration of the flexible area can change frequently. Around this space on the first floor are specialized spaces for career subjects and, on the second floor, classrooms for core subjects. Each academy’s offices are comprised of workstations in an open area adjacent to the mall. Every teacher has a workstation in this area rather than a permanently assigned instructional space. The intent is to foster communication between administrators, counselors, teachers, and students.

Instruction and Facility Empower Learning

Students who enroll at Wunsche retain an affiliation with the comprehensive high school at which they attended the ninth grade, and they may return there for athletics or performing arts programs, which are not offered at Wunsche. Wunsche provides 184 sq. ft. of space per student, which is typical of the district’s comprehensive high schools. However, without space for athletic and performing arts programs, it has much more instructional space per student. It was designed with different priorities.

To address the district’s growth and to reduce enrollments at the two existing high schools, it was important that Wunsche, as a school of choice, attract the 1,500 students for which it was designed. Some of the visioning participants were concerned that this type of school, new to Spring ISD and without athletic or performing arts programs, might not attract that many students. However, for the school’s first semester (fall 2006), nearly 2,000 students applied for the 1,500 spaces. Perhaps it was the combination of instruction and architecture that made Wunsche the school of choice for so many Spring students.

Frank Kelly, FAIA is director of Planning and Programming of the SHW Group. For more information, call 713 877-0900, visit www.shwgroup.com or send email to fskelly@shwgroup.com.

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