- By Jim French, Bob Binder
- May 1st, 2014
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DLR GROUP © LACASSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Set amidst 35 acres of prairie in suburban Northwest Denver is a unique, innovative E-12 campus delivering excellence in education, health and wellness, technology and sustainability. This campus provides a positive impact on the educational experience for every child, from birth to adulthood. DLR Group’s design for the Evie Garrett Dennis E-12 Campus (EGD) includes a central student union flanked by five separate academic buildings: a primary academy, intermediate academy, secondary academy, alternative school, and Z Place. The entire EGD campus offers traditional and alternative programs for learners of all ages in the Denver area. Opened in 2012, Z Place was the last building to open on campus. It is a multifunctional community center that includes an early learning program.
“If we want to help young people achieve their best in school and life, we need a model of education that will give them everything they need from the start,” said Mike Anderson, Evie Garrett Dennis campus manager. “Z Place serves as a national model to ensure access to high quality, sustainable and affordable early childhood education. Our comprehensive support services help children grow into self-reliant, healthy and successful members of society.”
DELIVERING BEST-OF-CLASS LEARNING
To provide a dynamic early learning environment, Evie Garrett Dennis turned to Clayton Early Learning, a nationally recognized program that delivers early care and learning services from prenatal to age 5.
The Clayton Early Learning program provides improved opportunities for the previously underserved “Children’s Corridor,” a 14-mile stretch of land from Northeast Denver to Green Valley Ranch. Inside and out, Clayton Early Learning’s new home within Z Place supports unique community services, gatherings, networking and innovative learning to better the lives of the children, families and the local communities they support.
“The Z Place facility, which houses Clayton Early Learning, offers a new collaborative type of education to help parents, educators and communities become engines for change to help all children succeed,” said Anderson.
Self-described as “Colorado’s leading catalyst in providing and collaborating with others to improve early care and education” from the prenatal period to 5 years old, Clayton Early Learning is designated as one of only 10 Centers of Excellence in Early Childhood across the U.S. by the Office of Head Start. Key’s to the success of Clayton Early Learning for students, staff, family and community members alike include:
- a very flexible, efficient design that can quickly adapt to changes in educational programming, curriculum and community needs;
- promoting “community connections” within the Clayton facility itself as well as with the Z Place, the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus, and the Denver community; and
- delivering the community facility, designed especially to support an early childhood population, within a safe and secure environment.
UNIQUE CLASSROOMS, FLEXIBLE SPACES
Z Place’s innovative design allows deployment of Clayton Early Learning’s unique classrooms, which are designed for maximum flexibility to help young learners during the most critical development period of their lives. The spaces within Clayton Early Learning provide year-round care and education to 100 infants, toddlers and pre-school students.
All physical features and furnishings in the learning environment are age appropriate scale. Soft-spaces within each classroom and multi-purpose space can be easily re-configured to adapt to changing needs of mobile toddlers and a variety of activities, with ample technology ports throughout to cover the needs of today’s teaching tools and beyond.
Classrooms have basic amenities, like desks, chairs and storage that can be configured differently, depending on the teacher and teaching style. One necessary amenity for active youngsters is a sink for hand washing and hydrating. Classrooms within Clayton Early Learning include three sinks, two for hand washing after using the restroom and completing activities in the classroom, and one used as a drinking station. Kids can fill up water bottles in a dedicated sink any time to remain hydrated during the school day. Additionally, cubbies are designed to hold personal items, like backpacks, coats and other belongings kids need throughout the day.
PLAY IS LEARNING
Play is an important element in early learning programs. DLR Group designed hallways to be used for both learning and play. Apparatus are stored to the side of hallways and pads hang out of reach off wall hooks. These items can be easily moved to turn interior spaces into a play area during inclement weather.
A dedicated outdoor playground offers a variety of activities, including crawling, riding bikes and playing on apparatus. DLR Group added a play shed that simulates a tree house for additional storage and to accommodate shade requirements.
OBSERVATION WITH THE DISTRACTION
Observation is critical to ensure dynamic child development from birth to age five. DLR Group designers included rooms with one-way glass to facilitate observation at Clayton Early Learning. These areas are used for teacher evaluations, teacher training and parent evaluations. If a child develops behavioral issues, parents can observe that child interacting with teachers and other students from this room. New teachers also have the opportunity to view activities and various teaching styles while not distracting from the learning activities occurring in the classroom.
Large floor to ceiling picture windows within the early learning center connect students, teachers and passers-by along the internal corridor with what’s happening within each classroom. Similar windows and secured exterior doorways within classrooms provide essential daylighting and connections to the play areas and to the Evie Garret Dennis Campus.
In addition to Clayton Early Learning, the community center centric design of the Z Place building includes the following.
- Strive Charter School — an open enrollment public charter with an excellent, rigorous, college-preparatory education for students in grades 6-8.
- Young Americans Bank — the only bank in the world specifically designed for people age 21 and younger, with programs geared specifically toward helping them learn how to be smart with their money.
- Business partner suites, including Lowry Family Center, Urban League, Reading Partners, Denver Health, and Mental Health Centers of Denver.
- Denver Public Schools Enrollment Center.
Giving Kids a Start. One of the keys to the success of the center is a very flexible, efficient design that can quickly adapt to changes in educational programming, curriculum and community needs. All physical features and furnishings in the learning environment are age appropriate scale. Soft-spaces in multi-purpose areas can be easily re-configured to adapt to changing needs of mobile toddlers and a variety of activities.
A SAFE AND SECURE ENVIRONMENT
Locating a variety of programs for people of all ages within Z Place created both challenges and opportunities for the design team. Creating a safe and secure environment for the early childhood center facility, while maintaining an overall campus feel for the entire Evie Garrett Dennis Campus, was key to the success of the design.
To ensure secure accessibility, DLR Group reduced and secured access points to the Z Place. Entry for all programs within the Z Place facility is limited to a shared entry vestibule, housing only one secured entry point for Clayton Early Learning. All visitors must pass through the central lobby and administration area before entering gaining access to the early learning center. In addition, all classroom doors have a second level of security that requires a proximity card reader to enter the room. Exterior doors within each of the classroom spaces are secured from entry, but can serve as emergency exit points as needed.
Additional safety features respond to young learners and their intuitive nature to explore. All classroom door hinges have covers so kids will not pinch their fingers while playing or opening and closing doors.
PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH A HEAD START
The ultimate success of Z Place comes from its development as a part of this unique new learning community for all ages. Research studies indicate that increased access to this early education and care can reverse negative impacts for children from disadvantaged homes ranging from illiteracy, teen pregnancy, juvenile justice issues, to high dropout rates and unemployment.
By creating a community center on the Evie Garrett Dennis campus for previously underserved audiences, Z Place can begin to end those negative trends by providing consistent, quality services and resources from prenatal care to pre-school and beyond. With its comprehensive, flexible spaces and resources, Z Place and Clayton Early Learning offer all students, their families, staff and the community a head start instilling confidence in abilities and opportunities for the future.
“Research tells us that despite strong efforts to improve our K-12 educational system, there exists a wide pre-natal and pre-kindergarten success gap in our current educational reform efforts that are leading to long-term challenges for our state,” said Anderson. “Z Place and Clayton Early Learning are filling in critical early learning and support gaps that exist within our K-12 educations system to help every child succeed.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.