Designing High Schools That Supports Career-Ready Education

by Mark L. Lee

The community of constituents, educators, planners, and designers of Edward Little High School (ELHS) have a tremendous opportunity in 2018 to fashion an education direction that will chart the course of learning at the Auburn, Maine School for generations to come.

Contemporary K-12 trends and buzzwords can sometimes be overstated and worn-out in the public conversation, yet the ideas they represent are not only in vogue, but relevant — learning beyond walls, transformation of libraries into Information Media Centers, cafetoriums with café-style seating, and plug and play charging stations, maker-spaces for mechanics labs or senior capstone projects.

A newly designed high school should be full of sustainable design features that save money, model behavior, and are a learning tool — low use water and plumbing fixtures, universal design, and wayfinding, the use of low impact building materials, recycled products, lots of natural light designed in the massing and form, living garden rooftops, energy conservation, and harvesting that leaves a low-carbon footprint. Today’s student is grounded in conservation and community stewardship, and they expect this in their schools.

We incorporate many best practices, and innovatively incorporate these strategies in every new or renovation project we undertake. The real challenge in 2018 and beyond is supporting our clients and communities with buildings that prepare students for careers and the workforce at the K-12 level.

School districts and their communities continue to point directly (and sometimes indirectly) at trends in the workplace — a setting where work, creativity, collaboration, and community meet and foster productive, satisfied employees. The challenge is to translate this culture of real-world innovation and team-based problem solving to the K-12 school environment. Does it merit consideration? Will it improve learning and advance education?

Coming revolution in education design

Sometime in the early decade of 2020, Edward Little High School will open its doors to a new generation of students. Some of the educational areas being contemplated are innovative, and will replicate the real-world settings students will encounter in the work place, service or college.

Once a school location has been decided, the ELHS campus will involve more than a building — it will be a community center, with a series of pathways bridging to athletic and recreation spaces, a landscaped outdoors, the placement of lounge spaces and common areas promoting impromptu social interaction and learning. It will incorporate applied programs from the region’s vocational center to reduce overcrowding and offer more curriculum choices for students.

Breakout makerspaces, laboratories for advanced manufacturing, emergency medical training, robotics, biotechnology, and fashion design are examples of applied learning studios that will coexist with core academic facilities. All learners will share common spaces, adjacencies, and spaces for interaction, socialization, and collaboration. Students will learn a variety of transferable skills they can apply to a variety of life settings.

Effecting change is difficult

The classroom of tomorrow will continue the evolution of the active learning environment. With an infinite and immediate availability of information at our fingertips, students are now required to apply critical thinking skills to solve real-world problems through increased self-directed and collaborative methods. Technology, furniture arrangement, and space design must support dynamic curricular and pedagogical formats.

Challenging the concepts of more traditional teaching styles and spaces leads to spirited debate during the programming phase of a K-12 school. It’s particularly challenging to bring change to public schools, where parents, educators, superintendents, school boards, and community constituents all come together to balance aspirations with pragmatic needs and budget constraints. The challenge for school planners and designers, is to listen intently to all concerns and arrive at a consensus design that works uniquely for each school — while implementing forward-thinking technology, flexibility, and adaptability to support changing needs for generations to come.

Mark L. Lee

Mark L. Lee, AIA LEED AP, is principal at Harriman.

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