How to design a school of the future

5 insights from Greenville County Schools on designing an award-winning building

Several years ago, Greenville County Schools in South Carolina took an innovative approach to designing a new middle school to be named for our former superintendent, Dr. Phinnize Fisher. We threw out traditional building specs and came up with a new process to design the school around a focused curriculum: STEAM and project-based learning (PBL).

Like most districts, our building specs drove our school design. They were effective in providing standardization but not innovation. Under the direction of Deputy Superintendent (now Superintendent) Dr. Burke Royster, we developed a new way to design schools that has become the model for how we design schools. In 2015, for the first time in more than 20 years, Dr. Phinnize Fisher Middle, a K-12 facility from the southeastern U.S. was named the national James D. MacConnell Award winner by the Council of Education Facility Planners International.

Here are some of the lessons we learned while designing the Dr. Phinnize Fisher Middle School.

1. Re-think the purpose of schools
We have schools so that students can learn. Up until recently, the school building was seen as just that—a building that houses students so they can learn. We were missing out on an amazing opportunity to use the building for learning, not just a place to learn. Fisher Middle has exposed ceilings with colorful pipes, server rooms that are behind glass, and walls and walls of windows letting in maximum sunlight and reducing energy costs. The building is literally a teaching tool.

2. Involve all stakeholders
In most cases, when a school is commissioned, the ed specs are pulled out, architects called in, and project managers start their work. With Fisher Middle, multiple stakeholders were involved well before we started to design the building. We asked for design input from local community partners, business partners, and multiple district departments. Typically, the academics division is not involved until the school is completed. For this project, academics was involved from the start.

3. Eliminate the silos
Our executive director of facilities, Terry Mills, led the process and made it clear from the beginning that academics should provide the direction on the design so that the school could be designed around the curriculum. He and his team supported us as we provided insight on how the school could best be built to support the curriculum. He made sure all departments worked together. The end result? A school that truly was built with curriculum in mind.

4. Know your purpose
We knew that Fisher Middle would be a STEAM school with a PBL curriculum. All students in our district have the same curriculum but the delivery model and focus varies from school to school. For this PBL school, we designed wide open spaces and classroom walls made of glass to make collaboration a breeze. Small workrooms, also made of glass, include a TV and table so that students can work on projects while teachers watch from a distance. A rain-collection system in the cafeteria allows students to see rainwater being collected and reused for other purposes. These are just some of the innovative spaces that required outside-the-box thinking.

5. Don’t be afraid to take risks
When you are designing a multi-million-dollar building, it is daunting to take risks. We took many risks in the design, and I’m happy to say that most, if not all, paid off. For example, we did not assign teachers a classroom. Instead, there is a collaboration room for teachers in each of the nine learning communities. These collaborative spaces house teacher’s cubicles, materials, books, and personal belongings. Each classroom in the learning community is designed differently so that teachers can change rooms based on the activities they will be doing.

Initially, we weren’t sure how teachers would feel about not having a traditional classroom that belonged to them. However, if you talk to the teachers today, most will tell you that they collaborate at a much higher level than ever before because they are together all the time. That collaboration can certainly be seen as you walk around Fisher.

Our new model for designing schools has one big drawback: the amount of time it takes to design each school. Although it is time intensive, watching how perfectly the school fits the focus of learning makes it worth the time invested.

I remember walking into Fisher Middle the first day students entered the doors. The look on their faces and the excitement at seeing the new building made it worth all the hours spent in design meetings. They didn’t know how the building was going to impact their learning—they only saw the cool exposed ceilings and the blinking lights of the servers behind glass. The building sparked a curiosity among students that led to questions about the building. And our incredibly talented teachers turn those inquiries into learning experiences every day! As educational leaders, how better could we give of our time than designing something that will truly serve the educational needs for decades to come?

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