Reforming High Schools:
Creating Sensible Places and a Sense of Place

Elliot Washor
The Met School
The Big Picture Company

Charles Mojkowski
Associate Professor
Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership
Johnson & Wales University

Rhode Island is giving serious attention to reforming high schools, addressing one of their most serious flaws-their failure to know each student well and provide learning opportunities that address each student as an individual. The State Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education requires that, by 2005, all high schools must put in place strategies for ensuring "more personalized learning environments." The new state policy requires each district to draft a "personalization plan" for its high schools to "ensure a collective responsibility for individual students."

There is a growing recognition that high schools' large size and archaic structures impede the substantial and fundamental changes needed to guarantee that every young adult graduates as a successful learner and citizen, neither left behind nor unknown. This requirement has prompted many Rhode Island districts to create small high schools, primarily by breaking their large high schools into smaller organizational units-a considerable challenge for our cities with several large high schools and a growing high school population.
Small schools will not work, however, if all districts do is create smaller versions of the behemoths they have now. We suspect that, as educators think deeply about creating smaller high schools, they will need to ensure that those smaller places actually provide sensible places for learning that help students create a sense of place for themselves.

High schools have become less "public" because they are increasingly disconnected from what students, students' families, employers, and the community regard as the real world. Schools are just one of many learning places in our society. Students spend less than 20 percent of their day in school. They learn outside of school as they work, as they play, and as they engage the larger community in which they live. If schools are to know each student well, shouldn't they recognize and also give credit for the learning occurring in these places? To the degree that high schools are disconnected from these valued and valuable sources of learning, they fail to serve as truly "public" schools, and their status in the eyes of students-and others-is diminished.

High schools have become less open and transparent to parents and the community. Few schools have places that support substantial and sustained public engagement. They are not perceived as places of learning open to the public. Most are closed in the evening and on weekends (although their gyms and field houses may be open), and it is unusual for parents to ever visit the high school to talk about their child's learning or to use it as a community learning place.

Large schools have failed to provide sensible places for learning. Their size and structure actually prevent meaningful relationships with adults around real-world learning. There is a monotonous sameness to the learning spaces-all those uniform boxes attached to long corridors. The physical structure shows a concern for control, order, and stability rather than for the states of mind we normally associate with powerful learning-interest, passion, engagement, enjoyment, and motivation. The structures discourage the development of relationships between young people and adults-in and out of school-and among young people themselves as they struggle to establish a sense of self and community.

Our experience in designing the new Met School on Public Street in South Providence convinces us that place matters as well as the learning opportunities provided. Indeed, the spaces available for learning often determine what learning opportunities can be provided and how students can engage them. Spaces for working in small groups, for individual work, and for presenting student work would support the true goals of personalization.

At the Met students have internships in the community where they develop a sense of place and a sense of themselves in the world. They connect to and develop a relationship with a mentor who uses the language and tools of a workplace surrounded by other people sharing a common interest and using the language and tools. It is here that students learn there is a place for them in their community, a place where adults are actually doing the things they want to learn. These places can be an artist's studio, a community center, a restaurant, or a bank. The Met's internship programs and other connections to the community of adults and the places they work are crucial to connecting the high school, the workplace, and the community. If we are truly interested in developing our State's workforce and in creating more equity for all in our society, establishing a sense of place is essential. If young people don't know there is a place for them, they will leave Rhode Island to find one. School buildings need to make sense inside and outside. Society's mental model of high schools is so ingrained that it is difficult to envision a completely different DNA for designing buildings. Surely we are in need of a new genetic code for high school facilities. The systemic work of designing and building schools that meet our student's and our society's needs has to start immediately.

As Our experience in designing the new Met School on Public Street in South Providence convinces us that place matters. The architectural dictum that form follows function has not been overturned, but it is equally true that function can follow form. Creating the right physical form for high schools can open up new possibilities for supporting the innovative programs and teaching we so desperately need. As Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us." We cannot afford to build another place without a sense of place.

Rhode Island communities invest in building new high schools and redesigning the ones they have, they will need to simultaneously create new models for sensible learning and build facilities that support such learning. These smaller more personalized facilities will enable learning by embracing the learning opportunities in the school and in the community-letting the inside out and the outside in. Creating the right physical structure for high schools can open up new possibilities for supporting the innovative programs and teaching we so desperately need. As Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us." We cannot afford to build more places without a sense of place for our youth and in turn for the whole community.

A wise observer of the way our society educates its youth has said, "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see." Our school buildings as well will outlive many of us, existing in a time we will not see. In our efforts to reform high schools and establish a sense of community in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities, we need to create schools and communities that provide a sense of place and make sense for learning.