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Want To Keep More Kids In School? Design A Smarter Classroom

“If you put kids in a different environment, the behavior changes, and the teachers are happier.”

This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter Q for “quitting school.”

Traditional school buildings are being redesigned and reimagined to foster student learning. Photo of Alamo Elementary School, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, students from kindergarten on up struggle with trauma caused by homelessness, violence, or emotional or sexual abuse. Three quarters of the student body qualify for free or reduced lunches, and 98 percent are people of color, according to the school’s website. It’s tempting to assume, then, that these classrooms would be filled with distracted and disinterested students on the verge of dropping out. Yet Codman's attendance rate averages 96 percent (even higher than the statewide average of 95 percent).

That high level of student engagement may be at least partially due to the school’s new Lithgow Building, which opened last August. The historic building was renovated with a trauma-informed design that houses the school’s lower and middle grades. “In many elementary schools, people use bright primary colors,” says Codman’s executive director Meg Campbell. “But for kids who’ve been traumatized or on the autism spectrum, red can be a trigger.”

The redesign uses a “walk in the woods” theme, because “people feel very comfortable and at home in nature,” Campbell says. Here, shades like the rich browns and yellows of fall leaves adorn the walls. Panes of glass sandwich real twigs and leaves of grass like you’d see in a spa, letting in natural light. Gently curving hallways replace the boxy hallways found in many schools. The dining room features sinks and ample natural light, a departure from traditional, gloomy school cafeterias.

Campbell says it’s too soon to tell if the new space will boost academic performance or attendance (though a study last year from the United Kingdom’s School of the Built Environement revealed that children in classrooms with a lot of daylight progress in their reading and math skills 20 percent faster than their peers). Academic struggles (with or without suspension) often generate a cycle of frustration about learning that can lead to students quitting school. Illiteracy in particular is problematic; in fact, poor reading and writing skills can lead to higher drop-out rates than poverty.

Campbell says she has seen a dramatic improvement in students’ behavior following the Lithgow renovation, even with the addition of 44 more students this school year. “Last year we had 16 students with 50 different incidents that warranted a suspension,” Campbell says. “This year to date, we’ve had three students with six incidents warranting suspension to date. If you put kids in a different environment, the behavior changes, and the teachers are happier.”

Of course, rethinking a school’s physical design doesn’t just benefit struggling or at-risk students. Following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the town hired architectural firm Svigals + Partners to collect input from the community and redesign the school (construction is slated for completion this year).

Like Codman’s redesign of the Lithgow Building, the newly designed Sandy Hook Elementary uses elements from nature, in this case to evoke a sense of calm and connection to the surrounding area. The building’s front façade incorporates undulating shapes that mimic the rolling hills and streams nearby.

Julia McFadden, associate principal at Svigals + Partners, says the design is intended to give students and visitors a sense of connection to their community, their world, and to nature. “We’ve moved away from the institutional style of schools that we saw maybe 50 years ago with a big square brick building and long corridors,” McFadden says.

And at Beaver Country Day School, an independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, chairs and tables on wheels allow for a more flexible classroom space that can be easily adapted for various modes of learning including discussion, collaboration, and presentation. “The messier [a classroom is] at the end of the day, the happier I am,” says Peter Hutton, head of school at Beaver. “They don’t get messy when kids are falling asleep at their desks.”

Students and teachers can write on every surface except the windows, so there’s no front of the classroom like you’d find with traditional blackboards. “When you walk into a room like that, there’s a mindset that you’re going to do something, not just absorb something like ‘I’m gonna sit down and they’re gonna tell me stuff,’” Hutton says. “You walk into a more dynamic setting, and teachers feel that too.” The school’s hallways feature little nooks where students can collaborate outside the classroom. In June, the school will break ground on a new library that’s being reimagined as a research and design center.

Furthermore, changes to the learning environment don’t always require a massive budget. Last year, two teachers at a junior high school in Biloxi, Mississippi transformed a hallway of 189 old, dingy lockers into what they're calling "the avenue of literature." Each locker is painted with the name of a book and titles (which include The Chronicles of Narnia and James and the Giant Peach), which were chosen to appeal to a broad range of reading levels and interests in the hopes of creating life-long readers and encouraging enthusiasm for books. Local educational nonprofit Biloxi First provided a $600 grant, and public donations and personal contributions covered the rest of the project.

All over the world, designers and teachers are working together to design classroom environments that are healthier, safer, and increase students’ capacity for learning. The World Health Organization points out that improving the school environment can help improve student attendance and keep kids in school longer. All over the world, students face environmental disaster, poorly constructed infrastructure, and unsafe commutes. Room to Read has found that literacy and attendance skyrocket when safety and security are at optimal levels (alongside robust offerings in school libraries and excellent reading and writing instruction from well-trained teachers).

Both here and abroad, rethinking the color, layout, and use of space in a school can have dramatic effects on school populations. By quitting our notions of what a school should look like, we can change how students and teachers interact with their environment—and each other.

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