Schools ride new tide

Recent projects reflect the need to accommodate community and technology

May 01, 2001 |

Riding a new wave of necessity, educational construction is trying to keep pace with rapidly rising enrollments throughout the country. But rather than simply constructing K-12 schools as quickly and inexpensively as possible, school districts and building teams are seeking innovative ways to infuse educational facilities with a sense of community — making them once again centers of social life — while designing in the technology needed for today's students.

Doors open to community

The school's return to its status as a community gathering place began in the mid 1990s after more than a decade of self-imposed isolation, experts say. "In the '70s and '80s, schools were shutting themselves off from the community, closing their doors at 4:30," says Michael Hall, chief marketing officer for the A/E firm of Fanning/Howey Associates Inc., Celina, Ohio, which specializes in school design. "They have begun to realize that reconnecting with their communities is a positive thing."

This reconnection is being accomplished by schools throughout the country in two ways: through the architectural expression of the school building as a reflection of its community, and by the use of the school as a facility to provide community services in addition to traditional educational activities.

While not entirely new, the trend toward the community use of schools is greater than it has ever been, according to Craig Mason, principal in charge of education projects for the Seattle office of A/E DLR Group. "The last major school boom in the '60s was focused on how fast schools could be built. Now, firms are being asked for the architecture to accommodate many different learning styles and all sorts of different uses. There is much more focus on including user groups and collaboration."

This increased user-group collaboration in the decision-making and design process can be time consuming, but worthwhile, Hall says. "It takes time and requires commitment on the part of the school districts and designers, and there are cost and schedule implications, but it improves the final product," he says.

Reflections upon the waters

Examples of these final products abound. For instance, nestled in the Seattle neighborhood known as Ballard, Whittier Elementary School uses the locale's most prominent feature — a nearby canal populated by fishing boats and salmon — as a metaphor. DLR Group designed the canal motif into the school with the concept serving as a passage from the front door through to the playground.

"Our goal was not to create something that was 'Disneyesque," says Mason. "We didn't want theme architecture. The goal was to make the design subtle and abstract."

An aquatic motif was also developed for the design of the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) High School. Designed by the Princeton, N.J.-based architectural firm The Hillier Group, the structure was inspired by the energy and natural beauty of Niagara Falls, according to the firm. The school makes use of earthy tan and brown tones, while blues reflect the mist of water.

In its design of the new 1,000-student Fort Recovery Elementary/Middle School in Fort Recovery, Ohio, Fanning/Howey incorporated the village's historic downtown into the building's linear "Main Street" corridor. The hallway provides access from the front entry to each of the school's academic "neighborhoods" and major program areas, such as the gymnasium, combination auditorium/cafeteria — called an auditeria — and the media center.

The corridor floor is tiled to resemble an old-fashioned brick street, and walls are lined with old-style lampposts and historic building façades, including those of a courthouse, community library and theater.

Doing away with duplication

Many of the same schools that have incorporated thematic community elements into their buildings also house community services. Use of school property for social events and civic meetings has become common throughout the country. Exercise facilities, swimming pools and health-care facilities are often shared, and school facilities also are housing child care, senior centers and other community services.

Conducting school activities and community services under one roof mostly comes down to economics; costs are reduced for community services, and schools often receive amenities that they otherwise may not. "Why not use the schools as a delivery point for those programs instead of duplicating bricks and mortar for every building?" asks Carmen Granto, superintendent, Niagara Falls City School District.

Of course, Hall adds, the facilities have to be designed appropriately. Most community services are located in zones separate from but shared with the educational facility.

Security must be given special consideration in these instances. But according to Hall, recent tragedies such as those at Colorado's Columbine High School only show how serious the need is to redevelop a sense of community in schools. Sharing facilities, he says, can help.

In an arrangement between the city of Twinsburg, Ohio, and the local school district, for example, the city helped fund a swimming pool, field house, locker rooms and child-care space that are a part of the new Twinsburg High School. For another of Fanning/Howey's projects, Medina (Ohio) High School, local officials pledged $7.5 million to attach its proposed community recreation center to the school. When the school is completed, a local hospital will lease part of the community center to expand its health and wellness education and physical therapy services. Additional amenities have received funding through a local performing-arts foundation.

Booting up for computers

As schools reconnect with their communities, computer technology is enabling them to connect their students to the world. Widespread use of computers has changed approaches to teaching, says DLR Group's Mason. "There's no longer the chalk-and-talk mentality," he says. "There are computer labs, more interactive learning and more project-oriented learning."

California's newly opened San Diego Jewish Academy features a sophisticated fiber-optic backbone, with 120 miles of conduit for classrooms that use 700 computers. Planners of the K-10 school wanted to eliminate redundant systems and create a single integrated system to operate its computers, as well as telephone, security, bell, clock and television systems.

According to Doug Reiss, the academy's director of operations, the cabling connects students to 15 servers in a dedicated server room. "Fiber optics take signals from the servers through a main router and send them out to the intermediate systems housed in different buildings," says Reiss. Through a system of high-speed, Category 6 fiber-optic cabling switches, signals are sent to designated desktops.

The school has one computer for every two students in grades 6-10, one for every four students in grades 2-5 and one for every six students in K-1.

"We're a city school, our kids have a little farther to go," says Granto of Niagara Falls High School, which serves a low-income community. "We think the key to the future is being technologically proficient." Toward this end, every classroom in the district is connected via fiber-optic wiring. And each student at Niagara Falls High School is issued a laptop computer.

Students and parents sign a "reasonable use" contract with the school district, making them responsible for the equipment. Of 2,400 laptops issued, Granto says only 20 are missing so far. "Technology is critically integrated into our curriculum," says Granto, who adds that with laptops, students can do work at lunch in the cafeteria and send it electronically to the teacher. The students can also take the laptops home.

Carbondale (Ill.) Community High School has taken a different path toward use of laptop computers. The school purchased 30 laptop computers and two computer carts to create two mobile computer laboratories to service its classrooms. A printer on each cart is equipped with an infrared port to connect laptops to the printers without cables. Presently the labs are stand-alone units, and are neither networked nor Internet accessible.

This technology is changing rapidly, according to Virginia Appuhn, a math teacher who doubles as the school's technology facilitator. "Recently, all major computer manufacturers have put together packages of notebook computer carts that feature wireless ports and network cards so the machines can be part of a network," says Appuhn. "An access point or antenna is hooked to an existing data drop in the room; the access point acts as hub and all units can access the network through that port." The mobile wireless labs are expected to be Carbondale High's computer link to the world when staff and students of the school move into a new facility that is now under construction.

In an era when the need for community involvement and technological innovation is so strong, the school is again taking its place as nurturer and facilitator. Through the positive reflection of and interaction with the community, school planners and their building teams are providing a solid base from which students can explore an outside world that, thanks to computer technology, is at their fingertips.

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