Building new schools can improve learning outcomes, studies show. Researchers found that a construction program in New Haven, Connecticut, had “large and positive effects” on reading scores among elementary and middle schoolers. A similar study in Los Angeles concluded that a $19.5 billion rebuilding program led to to “significant achievement gains” among elementary schoolers. And there’s even evidence that greater natural light, better air quality, and less noise can calm schools, raising performance.
Jim LaPosta doesn’t think that the benefits stop there. From designing several new schools, he says modern design can also improve discipline and safety, while offering opportunities for new types of teaching using architecture as a kind of living “textbook.” Chief architectural officer at JCJ Architecture, LaPosta says the environment of a school is a “third teacher” after the actual teacher and what students learn from each other. “The actual building teaches the kids a lot about the culture and society we want to have. It becomes a three dimensional textbook.”
As an example, he points to Marine Science Magnet High School, in Connecticut, a building JCJ worked on (see images). It is made to feel like a “working waterfront building”, suiting its mission, and the machinery of the building is deliberately exposed, so the kids can understand how it operates. Most importantly, the school has a big “home base” area meant to encourage collaboration and openness, and the seminar rooms at the side are designed to encourage people to peek in.
“The teachers may have their class in closed room for some of the time. But then they have them go out into the center area where there are tables and chairs on wheels,” LaPosta says. “They work in groups of twos, or fours, or 15s, depending on the need. It’s a different way the day flows from one activity to another.”
“The labs are all open to the hallway. Part of what we worked on was to spark kids’ curiosity. It’s about engagement. If they can walk down the hall and see their friends in the fish labs or on the bridge simulator, it might spark their interest in something they didn’t know existed.”
LaPosta says openness also helps teachers keep an eye on kids, making sure they stay out of trouble. “There aren’t any blind corners. The hallways are wide and populated. It means that you always know what is happening. You always feel part of the community.”
As schools respond to incidents like Sandy Hook, he cautions that schools shouldn’t turn themselves into “fortresses”. After all, bullying and fighting are far more likely than mass violence, never mind its regularity. “The same things that make kids safer in schools can improve the learning environment. It has to do with having awareness in your surroundings and being able to see and be seen all the time.”