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On the Cutting Edge of School Design

One Irvine-based firm shows how innovative, open design can inform students' learning

nature-newport-preschool-
The vision for a preschool at the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach.

What first stands out at Samueli Academy is what’s not there: No narrow hallways lined with clanging lockers. No classrooms with only tiny security windows through which to peer. No orderly rows of desks – or any desks, for that matter.

What is there is sunlight, streaming through the generous windows that embrace the three-story building. Common areas where students debate, collaborate or just collapse on stylish couches. Classrooms where wheeled tables and chairs can be moved for group work, where walls come down, literally, so that English and history classes, say, can team up on Greek mythology or the Gilded Age.

“There are no closed-off spaces,” says Tracy Boxeth, an instructional aide and mother of two teenage boys at the Santa Ana charter high school. “It’s kind of one big community. They know the teachers who aren’t even their teachers yet.”

So many features of this 3-year-old school’s first building are meant to reflect the porous borders between teachers and subjects, between the outdoors and indoors, between scholarship and work. Elegant design alone can’t make those connections. But it can make this type of interdisciplinary learning easier.

“Furniture should move; it should have wheels. There should be an ability to reconfigure, to take that topic your teacher brings you, go into small groups, then go back in front of the class and share your ideas,” says Wendy Rogers, an architect who oversees K-12 projects for LPA Inc., the Irvine-based design firm that worked on the Samueli building.  

LPA is burnishing its reputation in educational design with similar cutting-edge projects across California, including an arts academy in South Lake Tahoe and San Diego’s new e3 Civic High, located in a downtown library. Add up its work in California and Texas, and LPA has nearly 630 schools and colleges under its belt. But the firm’s Orange County turf has turned out to be one of its biggest showcases, with a striking lineup that includes the new Richard Neutra-inspired interdisciplinary classroom building at Orange Coast College, the Corona del Mar High School performing arts center and the proposed preschool for the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach.

Driving such design work is a growing emphasis on “project-based learning” – where students work together on a problem or perhaps an engineering or art project. It’s also inspired by the big interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); the so-called maker movement of artisans and techies; and even the controversial Common Core standards in public education, which promote overlap of subjects as well as collaboration among students.

“All these things reinvent the notion of the self-contained classroom,” says Dr. Cynthia Uline, executive director of San Diego State’s National Center for the 21st Century Schoolhouse.
That reinvention requires spaces that can adapt. In Samueli teacher Dea Riha’s 11th-grade English class, students are working with the history class next door on a project that asks the question: Can money buy happiness? She and her colleague turn a crank, which causes the wall separating their classrooms to part as easily as a theater curtain. She talks “Great Gatsby”; he talks Gilded Age history.

Could it work if their classrooms were designed in a more traditional way? Probably, she says, but it would be harder. For one thing, they’d have to find a room big enough for all their students, without interrupting other teachers. “This,” she says of her setup at Samueli, “is controlled chaos.”

Research backs up some of the links between learning and design. Multiple studies have shown that natural light, ventilation and moderate temperatures create a good learning environment. A study of United Kingdom schools, published in 2013, went even further, suggesting that a combination of factors – from lighting and acoustics to personalized spaces and flexible classrooms – could influence students’ academic progress by as much as 25 percent.

At Samueli, head of school Anthony Saba knows it can be hard to quantify the impact of design. Will the exposed ceilings, revealing a puzzle of beams and joists, inspire a student to get into engineering? Will classroom tables, purposely curved where each chair goes, give students a sense of privacy amid the group work?

Most public schools don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch as Samueli did, he acknowledged. “You don’t have to do it this way,” Saba says. “But, I don’t know, it just feels different.”

Thinking about this relationship between learning and design is hardly a novel concern. Progressive reformers in the 1930s were preaching the importance of learning-by-doing over lectures and rote memorization – a way of thinking that inspired a new generation of architects, such as renowned modernist Neutra, to design free-flowing buildings that had lots of daylight and access to the outdoors.

And then there was the less sleek precursor to contemporary efforts: the open-school movement of the 1960s and 1970s, in which walls were torn down and children taught in single large rooms. Teams of teachers collaborated with one another, using movable dividers to reconfigure the space for large- and small-group projects.

But in the mid-1970s there was a call for a return to basics, as teachers complained the rooms were too noisy and distracting. Some schools even rebuilt their walls.

Over the past few years, the hunt has been on for the “21st-century school.” In 2011, the California Department of Education commissioned a “schools of the future” report. One of its recommendations? Renovate and upgrade schools to encourage project-based learning. Many schools are struggling with basic maintenance costs, and most of the state’s classrooms are well over 25 years old.  The report called for a funding formula that would “avoid the presumption that all students should sit in rows of desks in a square room in the 21st century.”

Yet most still are, conceded Rogers of LPA. She was speaking at the company’s Irvine office near UCI, joined by Franco Brown, the LPA designer who oversees higher education projects.
In some ways, their sleek office, filled with other crisply dressed professionals, has many of the elements – and buzzwords – they’d been discussing in educational design: “collaboration spaces,” open floor design, natural lighting, and walls and tables that double as dry-erase boards.

Brown, in fact, says his contacts at colleges frequently ask him for updates on what types of changes corporations are making in their offices.
“It’s kind of amazing when you look at how our work environment has changed,” says

Rogers. “And yet classrooms … some of them are basically the same configuration. If you can’t move, how does that address how I move when I need to do things, or if I have ADHD? There are just so many more things we know about ourselves as humans.”

And even more about what we don’t yet know. What will education even look like in 20 years? Some educators speak of class days designed around projects, rather than set school times. Some have even predicted technology could replace much of the teaching force. There have been stories about Silicon Valley tech giant employees going in the other direction, sending their own children to Waldorf schools, where there is no computer in sight.

While school design could be on the cusp of big changes, it will no doubt have to change again, as pedagogy does. And maybe that’s the real question: How to design a school that will endure amid changes in how we teach?

Rogers says that’s what keeps things interesting for educational designers. She’s more excited about the potential for design to allow a greater human touch than anxious about what technology might do.

Indeed, Samueli junior Gwen Martin was quick to describe her appreciation of small details – how they made her feel – when asked about the new building. At her old middle school, getting up in class made her self-conscious: her desk chair screeched and she felt all eyes on her as she navigated the rows of classmates. At Samueli, no one stares at the student moving around, because everyone is moving around. “You’re not on stage,” she says.
Instructional aide Boxeth says she and other staffers have noticed it’s harder to pin down cliques at Samueli. Though there are groups of friends, she says, the borders seem porous – something she attributes to all the group work, which requires students work with a variety of classmates.

It’s all an experiment in progress, of course. Samueli graduates its first class next year. Having helped shape what the campus looks like, Rogers says she’s fascinated by how the school will, in turn, shape its graduates. “How does it affect who they become?” she says. “It’s very exciting.”


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