Superintendent's Blog

Contemporary Learning Spaces at SOCSD

Community members frequently stop me to chat about our facilities and learning spaces. We have made some significant capital improvements over the past two summers and I am pleased to report that most of the feedback has been positive, and I am reminded that there are always improvements to be made. Some folks have suggested that we “do more” in order to promote equity, access, and opportunity on all of our campuses and on a scale that better meets the needs of our students and society. With this in mind, our District-wide Facilities Committee has been meeting with our architects to consider facilities improvements on all of our campuses. On February 27, 2020, our Board of Education will meet with our governance team and architects to explore imaginative possibilities to make improvements to our learning environments.

The SOCSD governance team will consider the research of architects Randall Fielding and Prakash Nair as a framework for developing a scope of work to support modern learning. In their book, The Language of School Design (2005), Nair and Fielding categorize school facilities design patterns according to six groupings. These six groupings provide a framework for understanding the types of projects that will best serve our students and will be considered when designing and planning future capital project upgrades. These are:

  1. Parts of the Whole: These are spaces in a school building that serve a particular function such as learning studios and casual eating areas. Other spaces are fitness/wellness centers and labs. Of course, classrooms and performance spaces are also included in this category. At SOCSD we believe that the “learning is in the doing” and this state is frequently achieved by getting students out from behind their desks.
  2. Spatial Quality: Projects that consider spatial quality as part of the design process emphasize characteristics such as flexibility and transparency. At SOCSD, we have recently accomplished this through furniture and equipment upgrades, but understand that the buildings themselves need to be renovated to support these improvements. These improvements include dispersed technology, indoor/outdoor connectivity, and variety (spaces that are non-standardized are symptomatic of an innovative mindset).  
  3. Brain-Based: Patterns in this category deal with the design of spaces that stimulate the brain in ways that are beneficial to learning and overall human development. These designs address the manner in which spaces can be adapted to multiple intelligences and are figuratively described as watering-holes, caves, and campfires.  While we don’t have any formal examples of these types of spaces at SOCSD, we are excited at exploring brain-based learning environments in our schools.
  4. High Performance: Our teaching staff (and learning community) has expressed a desire to use our facilities as a “3D Textbook” which considers topics such as sustainability, recycling, energy performance. Director of Facilities Jack Rallo has initiated a student co-curricular program that addresses energy performance issues in our buildings and has tremendous curricular implications.  In this category, we will also consider how air quality (natural ventilation), color and full-spectrum lighting impact climate, and student/staff performance.
  5. Community Connected: One of our slogans at SOCSD is “Together We Can” which reflects our aim to integrate the community at-large into everything that we do. This is especially important for both practical and symbolic purposes. Practically speaking, these buildings are publicly-owned assets and are a manifestation of our communal talents.  We want our students to be inspired and guided by the expertise and generosity of our multifaceted community. Symbolically speaking, our facilities are the hearth of our community for alumni and non-alumni alike. This is where we nurture our children’s growth and make our voices heard concerning our aspirations for them. Our schools, therefore, represent our commitment to something greater than ourselves and it is only natural that we (children and children-at-heart) respond to the iconic features of the physical campuses. I recently facilitated a guided tour of Tappan Zee High School for the TZHS Class of 1967 and was amazed at how each alumnus connected to the physical attributes of the building (upon seeing the TZHS stage, one alumna spontaneously broke into song and performed a musical number from the high school play in which she was cast when she was as a student in the late 1960’s). Welcoming entryways create a powerful first impression, but every subsequent space has a story to tell and the impact on our students can be profound and immeasurable.
  6. Higher Order: This category “brings-it-all-together” since it synchronizes the functionality of multiple subpatterns. For example, we recently met with representatives of the Tappan Zee High School staff to consider capital improvements to our high school facility. I was impressed by science teacher Jim Keelty, who provided a conceptual sketch of an “applied science wing” which could be an integrated space for multiple academic disciplines. An example of such design patterns can be viewed at the Designshare.com website. Above all, safety and security features are a top-priority and integrated in all designs.

Our aim is to move away from stand-alone, factory-model classroom designs, and transform our learning spaces districtwide to “Elevate, Engage, and Inspire” our students. Our ability to evolve and adapt with the needs of our changing society will require the contributions and commitments from all of our stakeholders. In the days and weeks to come, I look forward to hearing more from our community on this topic and am excited to share our progress. 

Fielding, R. (2006). Best Practice in Action: Six Essential Elements that Define Educational Facility Design.  CEFPI Planner.  Retrieved from http://www.designshare.com/images/SixEssentialElementsIllustrated.pdf

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