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Through the principal's eyes: A look at K-12 architecture

K-12 Schools

Through the principal's eyes: A look at K-12 architecture

By John Poelker | Perkins and Will | February 22, 2017

Recently, I had the opportunity to serve as “principal for a day” at Anderson-Livsey Elementary School where I shadowed the school’s actual Principal, Janice Warren.   As an architect who focuses on K-12 school design this was a unique opportunity for me to experience the impact of school architecture and design from the Principal’s practical point of view.


The author, left, and Principal Janice Warren speak with students at Anderson-Livsey Elementary School.


Anderson-Livsey is a K-5 school located about 30 minutes East of Atlanta in Gwinnett County and has an enrollment of 785 students. Needless to say a school with nearly 800 students aged 4 to 10 years old is a non-stop, high-energy environment. What I quickly discovered that morning was that the principal has very little control of her schedule, as the first parent requesting a conference with the administration arrived by 8:30am. By 11:00am, Ms. Warren had met with roughly six parents in meetings ranging from 10 minute conversations to 25 minute conferences.

This continual flow of parent meetings and their often emotionally charged circumstances clarified to me the importance of a well-designed administration suite – where the principal and her staff can tackle these conversations in a triage-like manner.   When a parent or student enters the main office, an initial evaluation determines the next steps. Each circumstance requires situation-specific space and the relationship of the spaces to one another is critical.  Creating checkpoints and access layers that buffer the principal allows school leadership to better prioritize their time while letting parents and students resolve issues quickly.

After each parent issue was resolved, we were off to a curriculum-planning meeting where kindergarten English teachers reviewed lesson plans, discussed learning modules, and evaluated drills to help the school’s youngest students succeed.  While the kindergarten faculty performed nobly, they were forced to do so in a less than desirable space.  The meeting took place in a makeshift planning room without windows and furniture intended for very young children. If the space were designed with collaboration and innovative in mind (not to mention, sized for adults), the impact on meeting outcomes and teacher morale would be significant.


Mid-day meetings would be better served with some natural daylight.


At midday, Principal Warren hosted a special faculty recognition lunch which let her catch up personally and professionally with teachers.  The lunch, like so many of the events I participated in that day, took place in a windowless room buried inside the facility. Although the mood was festive, I couldn’t help but wonder what these lunches would be like if they were held in space that had access to daylight and some design charm. I recognize that functionality and budget efficiency are priorities when building a public school. However, I believe there is a hidden cost to sacrificing creative design for frugality – the cost of burdening school leadership with the learning and governance hurdles of a building designed for savings rather than support.

The day ended with Principal Warren personally supervising nearly 500 students getting on busses to return safely home.  As I observed her, I reflected on the fact that details such as drop-off/pick-up zones make the biggest difference in creating a functional and special place for faculty and students.  As an architect, having the opportunity to see a school through a principal’s eyes brought home the importance of inserting creative design details into every element of a school building. I believe with even greater enthusiasm that everyone deserves to spend time in carefully crafted schools that inspire learning and peak achievement.


The author, right, with Principal Janice Warren.


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