Architects, administrators reinvent high school designs

Friday, October 5, 2007 | 2:48 p.m. CDT; updated 9:48 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Students at the Denver School of Science and Technology aren’t bound by walls and wires; technology is wireless, and the walls are movable.

Students at the Whitmore Lake High School in Michigan don’t feel the cold; they are kept warm by 49 miles of pipes that absorb heat from underground.

For more information

The High School Task Force Report that the High School Construction Steering Committee is using as a guide can be found by clicking here. Photographs taken during the tours of Turner and Lee’s Summit West high schools can be found on the Columbia Public Schools Web site by clicking here. The DLR Group Web site at has examples of schools they have designed. The next meeting of the High School Site Evaluation Committee is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at West Junior High School, 401 Clinkscales Road. The public will be allowed to speak at the end of the meeting for up to five minutes per person.

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Students at the Bay School of San Francisco don’t just read about history; they live in it. Their school is a converted 1912 Army barracks.

Except for the teachers, students and desks, many high schools being built today barely resemble those of the past. Innovations in architecture, technology and teaching methods have led to unique environments, but the focus continues to be students’ learning.

Andy Anderson, the office leader of DLR Group in Kansas City, is working with Columbia Public Schools to design the district’s next public high school, which is scheduled to be completed in 2010. He said that over the past 10 years there have been a number of changes and trends in high school design. Many relate to the buildings themselves, others to curriculum and instruction.

Superintendent Phyllis Chase created the Columbia Public Schools High School Task Force in August 2005. One goal of the task force was to present its findings and recommendations regarding high school reform to the school board. According to the task force report, the nonnegotiable reform themes for Columbia’s high schools are personalization, professional learning communities, student support and flexible learning opportunities.

building changes

“There is a lot of interest in making buildings more sustainable,” Anderson said.

Using recycled as well as local — Anderson called them indigenous — products saves dollars and fuel. He said building “green” also means designing systems, such as roofs, that are environmentally friendly.

Other trends in high school design focus on creating environments that enhance students’ learning and retention. Examples include buildings that have better indoor air quality, maintain optimum temperatures and humidity levels and incorporate more daylight. Anderson said studies have shown students learn more when they can see the changes in daylight.

Another favored design feature is sound reinforcement that reduces noise from outside the classroom and ensures students can hear their teachers. Anderson said teachers are being equipped with microphones, and speakers are being placed throughout the room.

Configuring rooms into squares that create a shorter distance from the primary teaching wall to students in the back of the classroom helps as well. Finishing the room with materials that have a high noise reduction coefficient, meaning they absorb sound well, also improves classroom acoustics. These materials might include carpeting, acoustical ceiling tiles and fabric-wrapped tack boards.

Another new design feature tries to support teachers’ collaboration. Anderson said the old practice was for teachers to plan their lessons in the classroom. He said new design plans offer teacher planning centers based on subjects. For example, all of the math teachers would plan their curricula together and learn from one another by using the same space. Anderson said the center would have storage for shared teaching materials and technology outlets to provide an atmosphere conducive to collaboration.

Anderson said smaller learning communities are being designed to create more personal climates for the students. For example, a smaller community could include 180 students who share the same teachers for core classes.

Anderson said students feel more valued and known when in a school within a school, such as these learning communities. Ninth-grade students, who are making the transition from junior high to high school, benefit the most from the clustering of classrooms, Anderson said. Although Columbia’s high schools have long been 10th through 12th grades, the new school will incorporate ninth-graders.

advances in technology

The classroom has undergone a makeover as well. Wireless Internet access, SMART Boards, overhead LCD projectors and sound systems all can be found in today’s learning environments. A SMART Board, for example, is an interactive white board with a touch-sensitive display that connects a computer and digital projector to show the computer’s image on the white board. The teacher can then control the computer’s applications directly from the display on the white board, write digital notes and save work for later. An LCD projector is the modern version of the slide or overhead projector. It displays video, images or computer data.

For example, Parkview High School in Springfield was recently renovated and rebuilt. Todd Smith, assistant principal at Parkview, said the new school includes a lot of innovative technology. For example, to increase the speed of online service, the school switched to a fiber optic Internet with a high level of redundancy, meaning that if part of it fails, the rest should be able to take up the slack.

Most Parkview classrooms now have overhead projectors, such as the ELMO Visual Presenter. The projector can be used to display any two- or three-dimensional object on a computer screen or through a video projection system for the whole class to see. The teacher can write, edit, mark or move any object with the results being displayed in real time.

One-third of classrooms had SMART Boards installed.

Although the new technology was not installed in all classrooms, each classroom was pre-wired for everything.

“It was just a matter of when we ran out of money for how many we actually got installed,” Smith said.

Parkview also built three computer labs for the business department, one of which received a full gigabyte lab, meaning there is a gigabyte per second speed through the fiber optic cables, which is fast enough to download a movie in less than 10 seconds.

Smith said the innovations open doors for new teaching techniques. It increases the options at the teacher’s fingertips, he said.

“We no longer have to wheel the old overhead projector around,” Smith said. “We can have things prepared.”

Students benefit from the new technology in their classrooms. Business students, for example, have more capabilities for Web page design or the business of online.

The school had some difficulty switching the old system to the updated system, but Smith said most problems have ironed themselves out.

“Usually issues are hardware or program issues and not network,” he said.

The school district plans to add another wing to the school. Smith said they are planning to make each classroom more multifunctional. He said every classroom will include SMART Boards, projectors and cable feeds in order to broadcast TV over the projectors.

Columbia’s preliminary designs

Wanda Brown, the assistant superintendent for secondary education, is the chairwoman of Columbia’s High School Construction Steering Committee, which includes 17 other members from the school district and the community. Brown said the committee is using the High School Task Force Report as a guide in making its recommendations regarding the design of the new high school to the Columbia School Board.

On July 19, members of the steering committee toured two schools that were designed by DLR Group: Turner High School in Kansas City, Kan., and Lee’s Summit West High School in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Brown said a design element she liked at the schools was an entry area that provided a definite front door. The entries welcome students but also direct visitors, which can help with building security.

Brown also liked the two schools’ large grassy areas and courtyards for students to gather. She said the parking lots of both schools were obscured and did not detract from the buildings.

Plans call for Columbia’s new high school to hold 600 students upon completion of the first phase and to accommodate 1,800 students eventually, which means the district will consider the best ways to use the space.

Although the design of the school is stalled until a site is chosen — the district Web site states the committee is aiming to present its findings to the board on Nov. 12 — some things are certain. Brown said the school will include administrative and guidance offices, a gymnasium, cafeteria and classrooms. Plans will become more specific in the coming months. A fall 2010 opening is still planned.

Anderson said the High School Construction Steering Committee and DLR are developing a space-functional program, which is a detailed listing of all the spaces that will go in the high school. He said the school district administration and steering committee have articulated a few things that are important to them, such as supporting teachers’ collaborating and building a sustainable, or “green,” school.

“They are very much committed to providing a high school that provides for a personalized climate for their children,” Anderson said.

committee member ideas

Sarah Read, president and a founding member of Columbia Parents for Public Schools, is on the High School Construction Steering Committee. She said the new high school should serve two purposes: It should be for high school students and be another place for community members to gather.

“Schools are built by the community, and education can occur throughout one’s life, and having the building available for community events and use is both a service to the community and sends a message about learning being a lifelong thing,” Read said.

She said the schools she visited in the Kansas City area looked like the community really cared about education and wanted to support the kids. She said an important message to send to students is, “We care enough to invest in you.”

It is important that the high school prepares students for higher learning, Read said. A collegiate feel, including vocational-learning facilities, a black-box theater, media labs and a lecture room for large college-style lectures, could help, she said.

Read liked the idea of incorporating things from sustainable design, such as plenty of natural light.

Read also would like to see more space for physical activities, not just for varsity sports, but for intramural and club sports, and any other kind of extracurricular activity that interests students.

“There is a very proven, well-researched correlation between learning and physical activity,” Read said. “Research also shows that kids involved in at least one extracurricular activity are less likely to drop out and more likely to stay in school and learn.”

And then, for all these activities and community involvement, Read said adequate parking is a necessity.

“Parking has been tight at all the high schools,” she said.

Bruce Whitesides, Columbia Public Schools’ athletic director, did not go on the recent tour but visited the Kansas City-area schools this summer.

“I’d like to see enough gym space to handle physical education needs and athletic team needs,” he said.

Whitesides said the various basketball teams have to stagger their practice times at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools because there is only one gym at each school. But for him, too, it’s not just about varsity teams

Whitesides said the gym is in such high demand that any other group, such as the cheerleaders and wrestlers, must meet at other places around the school. Rock Bridge wrestlers meet in unused rooms, and Hickman wrestlers use a rented space for practice. The cheerleaders at both schools use their schools’ commons when they are available.

“I believe you need to use the blueprints of these other schools (in the Kansas City area) and go from their blueprint in how they’ve created space,” Whitesides said.

Jan Mees, who serves on the Columbia School Board, agreed with the need for athletic facilities, parking and open spaces for students. She said the high schools she toured had a lot of good, open spaces that Columbia needs to give students.

Thinking about the layout of areas also needs careful consideration, Mees said. For example, if a basketball game were to let out next to where a choir performance was going on, it would be disruptive.

Mees also said teaching areas need to be more flexible because students have varying learning styles. She said that when she went to school, students sat at their desks for three hours at a time, but that approach doesn’t work for every student. She said classroom areas should be more conducive to group work and the closer interaction teachers have with students nowadays.

Steering committee member Donna Buchert, a parent of a Rock Bridge High School student, said she supports having more gymnasiums. She also wants more language labs and a media center with many computers.

“Kids realize the need for computers, and not everyone has them at home,” Buchert said.

Buchert recalled a recent conversation she had with the director of Rock Bridge High School’s media center who said there is typically a line of students waiting to get into the media center in the morning. The lab, which opens at 7 a.m., is always full before classes begin.

At this point, the plans for Columbia’s next public high school are a work in progress, but Brown said each decision regarding the school’s design and components will have a basis in research.

Realistically, the school won’t have each and every innovation or new technology on the market. However, Brown said it will be a space where students feel valued and technology allows for a more flexible, fresh learning environment.

Missourian reporters Lyndsey Nelson and Beth Androuais contributed to this article.

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