'Child-centric' schools

Neal Peirce
March 29, 2005

Child-centric" is the name that developer William Gietema applies to the new elementary school being built in Hometown, a New Urbanist community northeast of Fort Worth.
The energy-conserving building will have many windows and be flooded with natural light, which research shows stimulates melatonin and in turn endorphins that make children happy ? and thus ready to learn more rapidly. Air exchange will also be boosted to cycle carbon monoxide out and more oxygen in ? another favor to the children.

Set in a compact new town with 6-foot-wide sidewalks, trees along the streets and traffic-calming features, this school will be just across the road from the city recreation center, next to a performing-arts center and new city library.

And 8 acres of the 10-acre site, notes Gietema, will go for child use ? classrooms, playground and a forested environmental-learning area, with just 2 acres given over to parking and bus areas ? uses which normally gobble up half of most new school sites.

"Instead of a school designed around the drive-through," notes Gietema, "we designed the school first, then came up with a method to allow parents to deliver and pick up their children without damaging the school's design."

The green light for Hometown's innovative school design came from Stephen Waddell, superintendent of the Birdville School District. "We intend this school to be flexible for people working there today as well as 30 years from now," Waddell explains. "The design incorporates flexibility, allows different teaming opportunities for kids and teachers."

Plus, Waddell boasts, "this school is being built so that the community can use it after hours." Community and library rooms upfront, for example, are open to learning opportunities for adults after hours, even while other parts of the building are secured.

Futurist thinker-consultant Ian Jukes, director of the InfoSavvy Group, stoked the intellectual fires of the school officials, planners and architects (HKS of Dallas) when designing the Hometown school. Jukes argues the old formula of "Stand and Deliver" ? a teacher before a class giving kids facts they'll be required to regurgitate ? is hopelessly outdated. Teachers are no longer "masters," he suggests, when kids, from their desktops, have instant access to every library or museum on the planet.

Yet most schools, Jukes notes, look like they did in the 1860s, before telephones, telecommunications or the gas-powered motor. He dismisses the rigid standards approach of No Child Left Behind as "a rearview mirror of what education has to be all about." Instead, he'd aim to develop skills of independent, highly resourceful thinking to prepare children for lives in which they may experience a dozen or more careers "in jobs not yet invented, technologies not invented, problems not thought of yet."

So many new schools look alike, asserts Prakash Nair, international school-building consultant and architect, because we continue to "warehouse" children with too little thought to how the design will impact student learning. Every business/professional group, from construction to maintenance, transportation to curriculum to security, lays out requirements. But who's responsible for learning?

Nair suggests how smaller, learning-centered schools might be configured. For example: multipurpose "learning studios," where children can be engaged in flexible learning zones that replace traditional classrooms; atriums and other open areas, encouraging student interaction, in place of traditional corridors; wireless laptops and other Internet-connected digital communications devices available to students where and when they need them.

A big point of the reformers is that students, especially older ones, can gain immensely by spending big chunks of time learning outside the school, in libraries, parks, museums, community service and school-to-work programs.

Elliott Washor of the Big Picture Company, co-inventor of the precedent-shattering Met School in Providence, R.I., describes the ideal new school as "a welcoming space," accommodating multiple types of learning.

Most of the same old architects grinding out the same old, banal school structures are oblivious to these new cutting-edge ideas. Cleveland is using its $1.5-billion fund for new schools so unimaginatively that it's "on the verge of a major public architectural catastrophe," a member of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission (Theodore Sande) told Cleveland Plain Dealer architectural critic Steven Litt.

Litt asks: Couldn't the school district collaborate with Cleveland State University and Kent State to organize a national symposium on state-of-the-art architecture and community-related planning?

To me, that's a crackerjack idea. The school-design issues need to be hauled out of bureaucrats' offices, into the sunlight of spirited communitywide discussions. America's universities could serve their communities well by igniting the debate.