CommUnity: Uniting Communities through School Design

Renovation of the Gibbs School in Arlington, Massachusetts, began with a visioning process to determine the community’s goals and needs.
September 9, 2020
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This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of School Business Affairs, published by the Association of School Business Officials,

It has also recently been featured on Spaces4Learning, which you can read here.

Today a new school building -- or the renovation of a current one – must be designed to meet a wide range of goals. To achieve success, the design team must gain the full input, vision, and support of the community within a specified budget. This is no easy task.

Child development research and the emergence of technology have both drastically changed the approach to curriculum and teaching. Culture shifts, legislation, local economics, and the rise of technology puts more pressure than ever on the many districts with aging facilities. Typically, schools are desperately working to find solutions to new program demands - whether they are renovating facilities or designing new buildings. Add to that the need for “push in” SPED, ESL, OT, PT, and small group learning that is now an important part of school programming, increasing the pressure on aging buildings.

Additionally, cities and towns continue to have limited resources for public gathering spaces for town-hall-style meetings, voting, meeting space for community groups, and recreation. When resources do become available to renovate or build a new school, these program elements often need to be considered as part of the design process.  Additionally, security concerns are a critical factor that is changing how schools are designed.

Today, architects are teaming with school programmers to gain input from teachers, administrators, parents, students, and community members. The designers then use that feedback to develop buildings that meet the goals and expectations of all involved. The Visioning Process ensures that a school building is a valuable resource for the community for decades to come.

The Visioning Process

Typically, schools first present their learning objectives which include elements such as: critical thinking and problem-solving; social and emotional learning; adaptability, initiative and risk-taking; growth mindset; effective communication; use of real-world tools; leadership and teamwork. Curriculums are built around these plans, which in turn informs school design.

Once the learning objectives are established, the design team assesses existing resources through a Strength, Challenges, Opportunities, Goals (SCOG) analysis. With this as a foundation, and using Visioning Workshops, the following elements are established.

BLUE SKY IDEAS – Blue sky ideas are a vital part of the process. Budgets ultimately drive what gets built, and every need may not be fulfilled, but there are often creative, cost-effective ways to incorporate big ideas. The process to uncover Blue Sky Ideas is an important one, and it’s where we sometimes gain our most significant insights and best ideas.

DESIGN PATTERNS – The designers and planners develop ideas for spaces and how they relate to each other. Such factors include classrooms, breakout areas, outdoor learning, transparency, flexibility, circulation, schedule requirements, among others.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES – Working with the communities, the designers develop a set of Guiding Principles that provide a reference for the team to review throughout the project when making difficult decisions. The principles are the ‘roadmap’ that inform many design decisions for the project.

SCHOOL TOURS – Tours are another essential tool in the Visioning Process. Designers arrange for the planning team to participate in tours of other schools that have implemented similar design features. School tours enable the designers and planners to view spaces in action to help them envision possibilities, and to learn from other educators what works and what can be improved upon.

GETTING TO YES – School construction projects require community support not only for the design input, but for the funding. Willingness to absorb tax increases to fund new building projects requires engagement, information sharing, and building trust.  Additionally, community members want a place that will serve the whole community, not just the children. Access for non-school uses is of paramount importance. To achieve this, the school district and the design team need to engage community members to gain feedback about their vision for the school and to hear their concerns.

Through the Visioning Process, trust is built, relationships are formed, and design ideas are developed in partnership with the community.

The Visioning Process – Told in Two Case Studies

Finegold Alexander Architects employed the Visioning Process for both the Gibbs School in Arlington, Massachusetts, as well as a new construction school project, which we refer to as the ABC Middle School, since it is not yet complete.

For Gibbs, the result enabled the school to achieve previously unmet goals and a future-forward approach to the design. For the second example, we are nearing the end of the feasibility phase but expect similar results.  These examples illustrate how the Visioning Process uncovers the community’s aspirations and needs, leading to more creative initial designs.

The Gibbs 6th Grade School – Renovation, Addition, and Blue Sky Ideas

Initially built in 1928 and added onto in 1973, the Gibbs School building totals 69,000 square feet. The school was decommissioned  25 years ago due to a decrease in enrollment and then was sub-divided and leased to non-profit organizations.

The design team worked closely with the Arlington School District, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie and Gibbs School Principal Kristin DeFrancisco to ensure that the design would support the District’s curricular program. David Stephen and his firm, New Vista Design, served as the visioning partner. He is a registered architect and educator specializing in Visioning Workshops.

The primary intent was to create a welcoming environment that would inspire students to seek opportunities for learning.

The Visioning Process began with multiple, all-day visioning sessions. The first session included teachers and school leadership. The second session included community members -- about 60 parents, local residents and students- in an open format. We then held follow-up sessions over the next several months with teachers and administrators from the town’s K-5 elementary schools which would eventually feed into the Gibbs School.

The Result – A School that Creatively Met Goals, Satisfied Teachers, Students, Parents

Using the feedback received, we designed a school inspired by how students learn and by what they need in today’s learning environment. Creative thinking was required to work within the boundaries of the existing building, which is always a challenge.

The renovation created flexible classrooms, with collaborative breakout spaces in the corridors fit out with technology and seating to allow for smaller group learning. There is a new, redefined main entrance and canopy designed to create a warm, safe, and inviting approach. A media center was created in the former Auditorium to create flexible learning clusters. The clusters house group meeting tables, individual work spaces, and a mezzanine large enough to accommodate a full class of students.  A digital media lab is located within the media center.  

The first floor contains a cafeteria, language classrooms, flexible theater space, music classroom, technology lab, and administrative offices. The second floor consists of two clusters of four classrooms with breakout spaces, a gymnasium, and an art studio. The third floor includes another two clusters of classrooms with breakout spaces.

As part of a long list of Blue Sky ideas, Gibbs now has two outdoor classrooms: one is focused on a community garden and the other is multi-purpose.  There is a viewing window into the Mechanical Room to see the inner working of the building systems. There are also multiple outdoor play areas for recess. The parking lot now includes two electric-car charging stations, as part of the sustainable design strategies for the project. The students and teachers were ecstatic that we could incorporate these program elements.

The renovated school opened in September 2018 to accommodate the town’s sixth-grade class. The Gibbs School today is a flexible, engaging learning environment that also is highly energy efficient. The project is on track to achieve LEED Silver V4 for Schools.

ABC Middle School – A Work in Progress

The Town of ABC, and the State School Building Authority selected Finegold Alexander to serve as the architects for the Feasibility and Schematic Design phases of the ABC Middle School project.

ABC Middle School, originally constructed in 1961 as the town’s high school, is a single-story structure of about 74,000 square feet. Our task was to complete a feasibility study that would evaluate options for renovations, expansion, or creation of a new building, as well as potential grade configurations. From that study, we will present a preferred option to move into schematic design that meets the community’s vision for the school.

Applying the Visioning Process to the ABC Middle School

The Feasibility Study kicked off with an existing building and site assessment in parallel with a series of three Educational Visioning Workshops. The workshops took place over two months and included representatives from the school administration, faculty, staff, parents, and students. The visioning sessions helped to identify and understand the aspirations of the school and the community. They also uncovered vital community issues and related concerns.

The feasibility study evaluated options for renovations, expansion, or creation of a new building as well as potential grade configurations ranging from a 6-8, 5-8 or pK-8 school. In the end, it was clear that a new PreK – 8 school building made the most sense, both in terms of meeting the town’s educational requirements and long-term budget.

Workshop #1 - The first workshop was held to set, share, and discuss 21st-century learning objectives, assess the school’s Strengths, Challenges, Opportunities, and Goals (SCOG). In addition, time was allotted to share the vision for the future evolution of the school as it moves to a PreK-8 grade configuration. We listened carefully to the community constituents and absorbed what we heard from each member of the group.

Workshop # 2 – In the second workshop, we reviewed and expanded upon the learning objectives and SCOG Analysis. We expanded and prioritized a range of architectural Design Patterns that would best support the school systems’ 21st-century learning requirements. The group discussed how the Guiding Principles would influence the facility design priorities and overall intent. The outcome was a concise set of fundamental requirements and priorities for the new school.

Finally, we worked together to share Blue Sky Ideas, allowing participates to sketch their own ideas for key parts of the building ranging from secure entry to athletic playing fields.

Before the final workshop, we toured schools in nearby towns that had recently completed similar projects. The tour enabled the group to see firsthand how other schools addressed similar issues .

In Visioning Workshop #3, the third and final session, the group together identified the important spaces required to achieve the vision. The group identified key talking points necessary to get support for the plan from the community.

After these sessions, the team held a community forum to share what the design group had learned. The public wanted to understand the costs of the project. Safety and security were huge concerns. Sustainability and community access were crucial elements. Most importantly, the community expressed its desire to create a dual-purpose school building design -- a place where both students and community members can call home.

The Visioning Process – incorporating the ideas of teachers and administrators, parents and students, and community members – enabled us to understand how the school needed to operate on a day-to-day basis. It also gave rise to a Blue Sky Idea: an outdoor classroom for students accustomed to learning without four walls and project areas outside the classrooms . The Visioning process for ABC Middle School has resulted in a preferred option, specific to the school district and community’s needs.  This is an essential step as the project moves through the community support phase of the project to garner town-wide excitement and, ultimately, the funding approval vote to move the project forward to implementation.

The Proof is in the Usage

When a new school is built or a current one renovated, its success can be measured by how effectively the building meets the needs of the school and the community. The Visioning Process ensures that the expectations of all involved are incorporated into the project’s design, creating the best chance for a successful school building that will serve the community for many decades to come.