Baltimore’s billion-dollar, 21st Century School Buildings plan sounds ambitious enough to begin with; renovate and rebuild nearly two dozen schools over the next five years. But there’s more to the program - it’s also creating learning environments that will incorporate natural light, better acoustics and malleable learning spaces.
"Twentieth century schools are actually really quite good at supporting individual activities," explained Isaac Williams of the architecture firm Fielding Nair International, which specializes in designing new schools. "But they struggle with allowing children to move seamlessly between those things."
On the other hand, the 21st century schools his firm designs often include classrooms that allow kids to learn in small or large groups - all at the same time. They have lots of surfaces to write or project on, modular furniture and communal work spaces in different nodes around the school.
Baltimore's school system has included local communities in discussions about school renovation and design at each of schools to be rebuilt or rehabbed.
The students in Rebecca Wheeler’s second grade class at Govans Elementary, a charter school in Northeast Baltimore, even got into the act the end of last school year. They made architectural drawings of their dream school.
"I made an art room and I made a parking space," explained Amir Lawrence, who was holding a brightly colored 11 by 17 aerial map of the school he imagines for the future.
"It’s huge," he said, pointing to the parking lot, "because what if your parents wanted to stay with you for the whole school day to see how you are doing...so you can park somewhere."
Govans is to be upgraded by August 2019 to include open learning spaces, a "Cafetorium" and a community space.
Talia Thomas, Amir’s classmate, had a practical request. "We need a cooler because all we can do is open our windows and get fans and then we got to talk over the fans"
Paul Bradshaw, a project manager with Grimm and Parker, the firm that helped come up with the design and educational requirements for the 21st Century project, said they wanted to design "learning spaces both from the architectural and furniture standpoint which respond more to the individual needs of children."
Research has shown that kids do better in well-designed schools: a study of 2000 classrooms found that kids exposed to more daylight improved their test scores by as much as 26 percent. And another study found that kids seated past the 4th row in traditional classrooms don’t hear as well as their classmates closer to the front.
Bradshaw said designers are even considering changing the furniture, like using chairs that allow for more movement.
"Students can rock a little bit and that’s not a bad thing because that’s what relieves some of the tension from being static," he explained.
But some question whether more thought has gone into the buildings than new curriculum.
"When does the model of education become a priority versus the bricks and mortar," asked Mike Haynie an education advocate and a vocal opponent of plans to close Northwestern High School.
Until the quality of education and improving literacy come first, he says, "it’s always going to be about square footage; it’s always going to be about dollars, and it’s not going to be about test scores and how the children of Baltimore City can matriculate through the system and become viable citizens of the city that can make contributions wholesale."
City school officials say they see the building program as an opportunity to enhance education and offer distinct programming at each new school because classrooms, green spaces, hallways and cafeterias are not just where students spend most of their time. Schools are increasingly resources for the wider community, and they’re places where design can change the shape of education.