Two radically different Canadian schools, Regina’s Douglas Park Elementary School and Calgary’s Connaught School, have each been recently hailed as exemplars of 21st century advances in school architecture. They also exemplify, in many ways, the advantages of “Fixing It First” over “Tear It Down and Start Anew” when it comes to building and sustaining true community-based schools for the future.
The gleaming new Douglas Park School, a “new build” project designed by Fielding-Nair International, for the Regina Public Schools purports to be a “School of the Future” with its shiny glass walls, open area classrooms, and ‘learning suite’ interior design. Its futuristic design, highlighted in a fully animated fly-over video, projects the outward image of progressive educational practice. Presented as “innovative” design features, the open spaces , lack of walls and moveable partitions will be familiar to those acquainted with the infamous “open concept” schools of the late 1960s and 1970s.
One hundred year old Connaught School, completely renovated in 2008-09, is the first sandstone modernization project in Canada ever to achieve silver status for leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED). In addition to renewing the building, the Connaught project exemplified true community engagement. Instead of mourning a school demolition, Connaught teachers and the so-called CBE EcoTeam partnered to create a series of educational resources using the heritage and environmental features of the school as teaching tools. That’s a leading edge curriculum innovation known among professionals as “place-based education.”
New build schools give the outward appearance of being innovative and “progressive” in embracing so-called “21st Century Learning.” In the vast majority of cases, they are the creations of school design theorists like Prakesh Nair who are disdainful of traditional school architecture and make a living off disposing of old schools and building brand new ones. School design visionaries describe traditional schools revered by generations of graduates as “obsolete” and only suited to “preparing students for a world that no longer exists.’” During the building phase, school user groups are normally either used as ‘sounding boards’ or engaged in giving limited input into the placement of functions. Such designs are seen as such masterpieces that public input is more or less a bit of a nuisance.
One of the most innovative recent school design projects, John A. Johnson Elementary School in Saint Paul, MN, is sure to alter public perceptions. Once a struggling, inner city traditional school, it has been reborn as “a beacon of academic excellence, design innovation, and community involvement.” Very much in line with current school design thinking, it exemplifies “Schools as Centers of Community “ principles in opening its doors to the community, tapping into local talents and resources, while offering community hub services in return. Considered one of America’s “Great Schools by Design,” it has also been recognized with the Richard W. Riley Award for Excellence for Schools as Centers of Community.
School authorities facing financial pressures are finding it simply too expensive to build new as they have for the past fifty years. Some school boards and districts have responded by focusing on building fewer bigger “super schools” giving rise to “Big Box Elementary” and “Super-Sized High,” and allowing the existing “fleet” of buildings to run-down strengthening the case for new build replacements. A few, more far-sighted, smarter school planners are awakening to the “Fixing It First” approach of targeting investments in school renovations and working to re-invigorate urban and rural communities. School projects here are seen as ways of revitalizing targeted neighbourhoods and communities. Central to that strategy is the removal of barriers to “construction and the rehabilitation of schools in established areas.”
The “School of the Future” may not look anything like Douglas Park in Regina. In its design philosophy and building principles, it looks very much “old school” in the sense that design experts deliver the school and the public stands back in awe. One of the few academics specializing in school architecture, Neil Gislason, remains cautious about anointing the Fielding-Nair creation as the ultimate in school design. Some of the promoters claims are not supported by evidence, he recently told CJME News Talk 980 Radio, and a surprising amount is “bound up in rhetoric.”
Will schools like Douglas Park alone produce better student learning? On this question, Gislason, says that Nair is mistaken when he says that the science shows the physical environment has a profound affect on learning. It simply does not work, his research shows, without proper curriculum alignment and a staff of teachers capable of, and committed to, providing quality instruction in “an open classroom environment. “
What is “progressive” about the “21st Century School Models”now being planted in empty lots or fields in North American urban and rural communities? Should community groups and parents be engaged from the outset in determining whether the school will be renovated or completely replaced? To what extent are the new school designs repeating the mistakes of the late 1960s and 1970s? How long after a heritage school is torn down does it take to re-build the sense of community?