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2019 K-12 School Giants Report: 360-degree learning among top school design trends for 2019

K-12 school districts are emphasizing practical, hands-on experience and personalized learning.

August 30, 2019 |

An outdoor classroom at Coolidge Corner School, a preK-8 in Brookline, Mass., which John F. Kennedy once attended. HMFH Architects was the design firm. CRJA-IBI Group was the landscape architect. Shawmut Design and Construction was the CM. Photo: HMFH Architects / Ed Wonsek


The nation’s school districts are focused on providing well-rounded learning experiences that plant seeds for future vocations in science, technology, business, or skilled trades.

In New Hampshire, the new Dover High School and Regional Career Technical Center brings together 1,500 students in a combined 302,000-sf facility.

“Parents and educators recognized the importance of making sure the career technical students were exposed to the highest academic standards possible, and that the traditional students had more involvement in hands-on programs and activities,” says Laura Wernick, FAIA, REFP, LEED AP, Senior Principal, HMFH Architects, Cambridge, Mass. “The high-bay spaces are integrated with traditional academic spaces, so a science classroom might be next to an automotive lab.”

School districts are continuing to shift their focus toward STEM and STEAM learning. NeoCity Academy, a new 500-student public STEM magnet high school in Kissimmee, Fla., will open in August. Located in a 500-acre technology district, the net-zero energy facility will expose students to an engineering, biomedical, and cyber security curriculum in immersive, flexible learning environments. Many of the school’s instructors will come from the University of Central Florida and the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center.


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Gould Evans and DLR Group collaborated on the design of the Missouri Innovation Campus in Lee’s Summit, Mo.  The STEM-focused facility unites 600 high schoolers and 1,200 University of Central Missouri students in a shared campus that enables high school graduates to earn associate and bachelor degrees.

Elementary schools are also embracing new learning environments. At Centerview Elementary School, a new K-4 school in Spring Lake Park, Minn., flexible learning studios include spaces for group learning, active learning, STEM, and specialized learning.

Outdoor classrooms, a rain garden, school gardens, and natural play elements are integral learning elements at Coolidge Corner School, an urban pre-K-8 school in Brookline, Mass. “Varied outdoor environments can play an important role in a student’s social and emotional development,” says Pip Lewis, Principal, HMFH Architects. 



Some school districts are circumventing funding obstacles through creative renovation projects, says Steven Herr, AIA, Director of Design, Fanning Howey, Indianapolis. “An old elementary school can become an innovation campus. A spirit shop can become a business incubator lab,” he says. Schools are becoming more diligent in identifying and repurposing underused space for a modern use.

In Hilliard, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, Fanning Howey oversaw the transformation of a traditional K-6 into a new innovation campus, all without moving a single wall. The Hilliard Innovative Learning Hub, which serves grades 6-12, provides experiences not available elsewhere in the district, such as a new Design Thinking course that incorporates language arts, science, and public speaking.

Public referendums are no longer the obvious go-to strategy for funding K-12 construction. “More states are going to need to pursue alternative methods to fund projects that won’t require voter approval,” such as private partnerships offered as tax credits and tax-direct incentives to districts, says Vaughn Dierks, AIA, LEED AP, Partner, Wold Architects and Engineers, Saint Paul, Minn.


Coolidge Corner School, Brookline, Mass. Photo: HMFH Architects / Ed Wonsek


Many rural and smaller communities can’t afford to make even basic investments in maintenance and infrastructure. In Colorado, the BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) grant program allocates a portion of state revenue to fund school facilities in need, particularly in small districts. “This is one way states are making safe, modern, effective teaching environments accessible to all students,” says Dierks.

The Texas legislature is considering a $9 billion plan, including property tax reform, to fund the state’s public schools. “This is a heated topic,” says Angela Cardwell, Chief Marketing Officer, Joeris General Contractors, San Antonio. “While funding for construction comes from bonds and not from the same pool of money as allocated by the state legislature, any reform will impact the overall state of school spending.”

Wold’s Dierks says school districts can use maintenance projects as a means to achieve broader goals. Edina, Minn., is studying how to use roof replacements as an opportunity to partner with third-party solar panel providers to maximize life cycle benefits and minimize costs, he says. The Minneapolis Public Schools system is using the renovation of outdated restrooms and locker rooms as an opening to set new practices for personal comfort and safety amid questions of gender identity, equity, and privacy.

Some K-12 schools are expanding their core educational mission to provide broader social and human service functions for students and communities. Last March, Mayo Clinic opened a health clinic at the Alternative Learning Center, a nontraditional school in Rochester, Minn., where about two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The new clinic provides acute and chronic medical care to students and their dependents; payment is adjusted according to ability to pay. Other onsite conveniences provide homeless students with daycare, showers, laundry facilities, and clothing and food shelves. (More K-12 school building news and trends.)



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