Education Interiors

The New Flora Elementary School

The four elementary schools serving the Flora, Ill., community needed an upgrade — some had been built as far back as the 1940s! These older facilities did not adequately serve the needs of the modern student. Recognizing this as far back as 1998, our district made the construction of an innovative new school a priority, and the decision was made to replace the existing schools with a single, state-of-the-art facility. Our ultimate goal for this new facility, Flora Elementary School, was to upgrade the learning and teaching experience to better align with 21st-century learning initiatives.

We determined that transitioning from four schools to a single facility would have numerous, ancillary benefits beyond modernizing the educational experience. Having all of our K-5 students and staff together in one location provides a heightened sense of unity, and the massive facility can facilitate large, community events. One of the key goals of 21st-century learning is collaboration, and at Flora Elementary we can more efficiently achieve this ideal because all of our students and staff are together, in the same location, each school day.

Another, major focus of 21st-century learning is the facilitation of a wide variety of teaching and learning methods. Students today are encouraged to tackle projects in a multitude of ways, from standard lectures to small group discussions and individual assignments. These varied learning styles require diverse educational spaces that students and teachers can utilize to attain success no matter what type of project they are working on at a given time. Accordingly, we designed Flora Elementary with flexible classrooms, learning commons areas, and spaces for children to socialize and express themselves — all with technology integrated throughout to support the needs of the modern learner.

As state construction grant funds became available and as the concept for Flora Elementary School began to become a reality in 2013, we sought a furniture and equipment vendor who would not only provide innovative products for today’s student, but also who could offer subject matter expertise that would enhance our vision of building a beacon of learning for the community. To this end, we partnered with School Specialty. Their team offered products and services tailored distinctly to the needs of Flora Elementary, instead of employing a one-size-fits-all approach.

With our 21st-century goals in mind and our F&E partner on board, we were able to complete and outfit an advanced, modern facility in time for the start of the 2015-2016 school year. While the entire school is a wonderful achievement, we are especially proud of a few, key areas. Chief among these is the new media center, which is the focal point of Flora Elementary School. This space offers students and teachers a wide range of educational experiences and learning mediums. It includes standard lecture areas for traditional instruction or presentations, a variety of flexible and mobile furniture that can be easily rearranged for small group projects, as well as more secluded, quiet areas for individual assignments and developing a love for reading.

This beautiful space provides flexibility, and it is a social center in addition to a learning environment. Several areas of the media center have a coffee shop aesthetic, with soft seating where students can relax and socialize. Much of the space feels like a lounge, allowing students to make themselves comfortable and unwind. Everyone who enters Flora Elementary is drawn to the media center, given its striking design and application for many types of learning. Creating such a space was essential to our 21st-century learning plans, and it provides students with a common area to collaborate, and where they migrate for a variety of educational activities.

Additionally, this beautiful space is enhanced with technology integration from top to bottom. It contains a variety of computer labs, some that are casual and some more formal for rigorous projects. Reading areas and student workstations include charging ports to facilitate uninterrupted use of mobile devices. Laptops and tablets have become critical to the learning experience as students utilize them for research and to create unique materials for their assignments. We wanted to ensure that the vast wealth of knowledge available on the Internet was never far from reach.

A variety of mobile furniture solutions populate the
media center, and indeed most of Flora Elementary, with one furniture item that really stands out. The Classroom Select NeoRok stools were specially selected for the guided reading activity tables. These unique stools allow students to gently rock while sitting, both front-to-back and side-to-side. We also outfitted the school with a variety of other student chairs that allow for movement. These chairs were coupled with flexible student desks that can be configured in multiple ways for individual or collaborative learning. The gentle movement afforded by these seating options has been proven to improve concentration and attentiveness through increased blood flow to the brain. This seemingly straightforward idea was a revelation to us, and we have already observed numerous benefits. Our students are calm, not antsy, when sitting in these movement seats, even during extended lectures. The simple ability to move while learning stimulates the brain, which is the primary objective for any learning environment.

While the media center is the main focus area for innovative, 21st-century learning at Flora Elementary School, we also sought to design spaces for outdoor learning and collaboration. Our massive playground is divided into two halves by a shaded, common space that includes a variety of benches and picnic table seating. Open to all ages and grade levels, this common outdoor space is similar to the media center in that it is both a social and educational area, and many teachers plan to utilize it to stimulate creativity through learning activities outside the classroom.

Another area to highlight is our art wing, which includes a unique, outdoor courtyard. As with the playground commons area, our goal for this space is to stimulate creativity by allowing students to learn outside the confines of the classroom, which is of course especially critical for artistic activities. The art wing is adjacent to the media center, and this section of Flora Elementary is where students can interact and learn in the widest variety of ways, engaging their interest in their lessons by keeping the educational experience fresh and exciting. School Specialty again provided an interesting array of furniture for these art activity spaces, including mobile, clover-shaped tables that provide flexible, abundant space for students to create and share ideas. All of these furniture options were selected specifically to facilitate and enhance collaboration in line with 21st-century learning.

We set out to offer a one-of-a-kind, 21st-century learning facility, and I firmly believe that Flora Elementary School is a shining example of modern, cutting-edge education. We are incredibly proud of the brand-new facility, which has just kicked off its inaugural school year. In addition to being a community landmark, the school is also a wonderfully refreshing and forward-thinking place for students to learn, interact, and grow in whichever way suits them best.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Dr. Joel Hackney is currently enjoying his third year as superintendent of the Flora Community School District in Illinois. Earlier in his career, Dr. Hackney was the superintendent of Okaw Valley Community School District, also in Illinois, for five years.

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