Wake County schools in the future could include open areas with ottomans and pillows or other flexible furniture for students to sit on as they work.
Collaborative learning areas where students could work in small or large groups or on their own won’t come cheap though as Wake County school administrators look to incorporate some of these non-traditional classroom spaces in the district’s 171 schools.
On Tuesday, Wake County school board will consider whether to add up to $887,000 to the cost of building Bryan Road Elementary School in Garner and renovating Brooks Elementary School in Raleigh to add these collaborative learning areas. Administrators are hoping to use those two projects as models for more of these learning spaces in future construction projects.
Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said expanded use of these collaborative learning spaces will promote 21st Century learning skills called the “4Cs” – collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking. The 4Cs are part of the school board’s five-year strategic plan.
“Creativity and collaboration are skills that higher education and the job market demand of our graduates,” Moore said. “We want to make sure that we’re equipping them in the K-12 environment with experiences that prepare them for higher ed or the job market.”
Skeptics though wonder if Wake could better spend its limited resources elsewhere.
“In the end, the district may have to sacrifice the cool factor to ensure that as many students as possible have seats in school buildings,” said Terry Stoops, director of education research studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank. “This falls on the school board to direct the facilities staff to find and use school designs that maximize capacity and control school costs.”
Wake isn’t alone in this push. School districts around the world have been developing school spaces that look more like offices where furniture can be moved around and partitions can be erected or taken down depending on what students need.
These commons areas are touted as supporting different student learning styles and encouraging independence while still providing supervision.
Moore said some of these elements have been implemented in pockets around the district, at Rolesville High School and the Vernon Malone College And Career Academy. But she said that the conversations picked up during this school year as planners looked at how to incorporate collaborative learning in the strategic plan,
“Traditional classrooms in school are built with rectangular spaces and doors that are closed and windows that lead to the outside,” Moore said. “When you look at places now in the cutting edge of the workspace environment, you find a lot more flexibility with opportunities to work together and come apart. We want flexibility for kids to work together in large groups or small groups.”
Administrators briefed the school board’s facilities committee last week on their efforts to learn more about how other school systems incorporate collaborative learning spaces. Sheri Green, Wake’s director of facility planning, gave examples such as schools having pillows and ottomans in their commons areas that can be moved around or having students eat their lunches in their shared area.
At existing schools, Moore said schools are doing things such as dismantling old computer labs to create commons areas. But Moore said that renovations and new schools offer them more of an opportunity to incorporate these features.
School board vice chairman Tom Benton, an education consultant who used to be a teacher and principal, said he’s not opposed to the idea. But he warned that critics might say it’s reminiscent of the failed move in the 1970s to have open classrooms without walls.
Moore told board members that the 1970s approach lacked flexibility found in the new model.
“This provides flexibility that allows you to mix the methodologies and adjust based on what your needs are for the kids or the lesson,” she said. “What we want is the flexibility in the learning spaces.”
Green said open-classroom advocates were ahead of their time and didn’t have the technology that now exists to support that model.
But Stoops of the Locke Foundation said that a time of rising construction costs and overcrowded schools it doesn’t make sense to move forward with more expensive designs. Stoops, a former high school teacher, also said that collaboration and, more importantly, content, can be taught in the traditional classroom.
“Wake County is in no position to entertain wish lists, especially those that add costs and reduce classroom space,” he said. “Their focus should be to use taxpayer dollars to accommodate classroom growth.”
Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui
New approach and costs
On Tuesday, the school board will consider spending $272,000 at Brooks Elementary to add 1,450 square feet of collaborative learning space. Features include:
▪ Creating three classroom commons areas where small groups can work.
▪ Erecting a folding wall of windows at the media center leading to the outside of the school, where students can work.
▪ Creating a gallery area where large projects can be displayed and where students can work.
But Sheri Green, Wake’s director of facility planning, said that the system is limited in how much space they can add at Brooks. In contrast, the school board will consider spending up to $615,000 at Bryan Road Elementary to add up to 3,600 square feet of commons space.
One of the three Bryan Road designs would reduce the new school’s capacity.