Education

Back to school: How has your child's classroom experience changed?

School architecture undergoes many changes as districts remodel, build new facilities

Parents and students arrive for open house at Prairie Hill Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. The school was built in 2014 and its design emphasizes natural light, color and flexible furnishings and spaces. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Parents and students arrive for open house at Prairie Hill Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. The school was built in 2014 and its design emphasizes natural light, color and flexible furnishings and spaces. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Students returned to Prairie View Elementary School earlier this week to track down their locker spaces, pet the school’s therapy dog and meet their new teachers before their first day of school.

Some students here found that their classrooms this school year — which started for most Iowa districts Thursday — weren’t really rooms at all, but spaces bordered by makeshift partitions.

 

School design has gone though its fads and phases since the days of one-room schoolhouses, local architects say. In the 1970s, when College Community School District’s Prairie View opened, the trend was open floor plans.

A wall-less school has its benefits, Prairie View Principal Mike Hansen said at a school open house Tuesday. He can easily peek over partitions to check in on classes, for example, and there’s a strong sense of community within the building.

“But talking is learning,” Hansen said. “We have lots of open rooms, with a lot of talking. It can get loud.”

A flexible learning environment

Now, as many districts in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area look to build or renovate schools to address enrollment growth and aging facilities, schools are being built with an eye toward collaborative — but more manageable — spaces.

“There’s a great understanding of the need for a collaborative learning environment” where students have space to work together, said Vicki Hyland, a construction administrator and K-12 specialist with OPN Architects. “There’s an opportunity with aging facilities — we’re deciding how we upgrade and improve them.”

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And, with consideration for schools’ limited budgets and unforeseen future trends, schools are often being designed to be flexible.

“A lot of it comes down to making sure spaces are versatile and can be used for a variety of different things,” said Shive-Hattery Architect Tandi Brannaman. “We’re not thinking traditionally — like we have to have classrooms all lined up in a row, how it was when I went to school. It’s more ‘How can that classroom we may be adding be used in a lot of different ways?’”

Prairie View Elementary is scheduled to receive permanent walls next summer, a project that was funded by a bond voters approved in February 2016.

 

It’s one of many schools in the area set to be updated soon. Scores of Iowa City Community School District schools will see updates thanks to a successful 2017 bond issue, Clear Creek Amana Community School District is in the middle of constructing a new elementary school in Tiffin, and the Linn-Mar Community School District is hoping voters on Sept. 11 will approve the construction of two new schools in Marion.

Over the next two decades, 13 elementary schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District also are slated to be razed and rebuilt or significantly remodeled.

“We’ve seen an increase in construction across the board as far as public schools go,” OPN principal architect Roger Worm said. “Aging facilities is a large part of it.”

A break from tradition

Times have changed — how buildings function now in an educational environment is very different now than when many of these buildings were built.”

The newest elementary school in the College Community district, Prairie Hill Elementary, opened five years ago and was designed with collaborative spaces in mind.

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“The colors, lighting, the space, even the furniture is designed for collaboration,” Prairie Hill Principal Scott Schipper said. “The design wasn’t about a traditional classroom setup. Now, we’re more about being flexible.”

Older schools that weren’t built to accommodate modern-day teaching methods often don’t have room for practices that are becoming common place, said OPN’s Hyland, who worked on the Prairie Hill project.

“Blended (with technology) learning, working independently, in groups, with teachers — old schools were built with small classrooms, and don’t afford some of those opportunities,” she said.

Designs to draw in students

In tandem with modern-day learning spaces, some schools are also getting high-end amenities — top-notch football stadiums, lounge areas that look like university spaces and grand auditoriums.

Those areas are often designed with the hope of motivating students to want to be at their school, Shive-Hattery’s Brannaman said.

“Every student that goes out of your district to another district and open-enrolls, you lose the money for that student,” she said. “If a neighboring school district that’s 10 minutes away has these incredible facilities, it could draw the kids to those districts. So that becomes a big push.”

 

School security measures — two layers of locked doors at entrances, video cameras, safe areas to hide in place — have also become more of a focus for schools, architects said, in light of the recent national focus on school shootings.

While safety concerns are less susceptible to shifting trends, Brannaman said a focus on designing schools knowing “there will be something else that’s important someday” could save schools dollars in the long run.

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“You do have to be mindful that even if you get some crazy trend down the line — like where people don’t want walls anymore — you still have to do it in a way that is logical and thoughtful about the future,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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