Redesigning High Schools as Community Learning Centers:
Creating a Sense of Place and Sensible Places

Elliot Washor
The Met School
The Big Picture Company

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

Recognizing the importance of an educated citizenry to the revitalization of their cities, mayors and their school superintendents are initiating major school reform initiatives, many with a focus on creating smaller, more personalized high schools that employ innovative curriculum and teaching to address valued learning standards. High school reform, however, is only one of the forces impacting many large cities. They are challenged as well by a rapidly growing high school population and rapidly deteriorating high school buildings.

These challenges are converging to place high school facilities design - particularly for small high schools - at the center of national attention. School districts currently spend about $28 billion annually on the construction of new schools and the renovation of existing ones. Most new high schools facilities are obsolete the day they open, however, primarily because they are too large and their inflexible and standardized spaces cannot accommodate the substantial changes needed in curriculum and teaching based on a deepening understanding about learning and learners, particularly adolescent learners. We believe they are obsolete as well because they fail to address the challenges of high school reform and because they miss the opportunity to address larger problems cities face in creating spaces for community literacy and lifelong learning.

Since 1994 we have been engaged in high school reform and in designing high school facilities that enable innovative approaches to curriculum and instruction. Based on our experience, we believe that to address these challenges, mayors need to see the problem as much larger and more systemic. In keeping with Einstein's observation that most problems cannot be solved at the level at which they were created, we believe that high schools can and must serve as learning places for the entire community, and that their design and construction must be seen as a community responsibility. Indeed, cities can no longer afford to build high schools that serve only high school age students. The schools should serve a larger and more diverse population, including students who leave high school before graduation as well as adults in the community who wish to continue their learning. In short, we must revitalize the public in public schools.

High schools have become less "public" because they are increasingly disconnected from what students, students' families-and many others-regard as the real world. Schools are just one of many learning places in our society. Students spend less than 20% of their day in school. They learn as they work, as they play, and as they engage the larger community in which they live. Often, schools are disconnected from this kind of learning. To the degree that high schools are isolated, they fail to serve as "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 family and public engagement. They are not perceived as places of learning open to the public. Most are closed evenings and weekends (although their gyms and field houses may be open), and it is unusual for parents to visit the high school to talk about their child's learning or to use the school as a learning place.

Large high schools have failed to provide sensible places for learning for many students. There is a monotonous sameness to all of 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.

High schools' physical and organizational structures conspire to drive many students to drop out before graduation. High schools make it difficult for dropouts to reconsider and come back for additional learning. Dropouts seldom see high schools as a place for learning once they leave, primarily because the school provides no sense of place for them and no sensible learning opportunities. Without a successful high school experience, many young people drift from poor job to poor job for 5 to 10 years before settling into any semblance of a career ladder.

Many youth development programs are targeting high school dropouts to reduce the wasting human development caused by a poor high school experience. The Big Picture Company is currently facilitating a network of such organizations. These organizations can join with educators and members of the school community to design new high schools, physically, organizationally, and pedagogically.

We believe these problems can be addressed at two levels. The first and most obvious is to fundamentally redesign learning opportunities for high school students and to create physical structures that better accommodate those changes. The second level is to redesign high schools as community learning centers that serve all of the community's learners as well as their traditional high school population.

Although these new high schools will accommodate a larger and more diverse group of learners, they need not be - indeed, they should not be - large structures. Instead, these new schools should be small and nested within the city's neighborhoods. They need to be seen as 24/7/365 learning places accommodating learners of all ages and linking themselves to other places for learning and work throughout the community.

Creating such places will actually reduce costs by effecting greater utilization of school buildings and accommodating a larger number of learners. Moreover, providing a sense of place and more sensible learning opportunities for our youth will ultimately save the community considerable dollars on social services.

We believe that it takes a village to reform high schools and to build the structures for learning that we need. It is only by establishing true community learning places that cities can restore to high schools a sense of place. High school reform needs to be viewed as a key task in community revitalization.

We believe that a more systemic and strategic building plan would:
" Build smaller schools embedded throughout the community.
" Allow for creating more alternative learning programs.
" Reduce the number of young people who leave high school and never return to learning.
" Connect young people with the adults in authentic learning and work settings.
" Provide places for young people who leave high school to return to innovative and engaging learning.
" Operate 24/7/365.
" Reduce cost per learner while enhancing quality and effectiveness, both immediately and long-term.

Building such schools will require that mayors, city planners, and school superintendents provide the essential leadership. Only they have an eye for the whole chessboard and the responsibility to bring all members of the community, including educators, to a shared vision for learning. Mayors will need to work with insightful architects and contractors who are willing to forgo the traditional mental model of high school and embrace a more holistic vision of community learning centers.

Revitalizing our cities is ultimately about revitalizing people - empowering all citizens with lifelong learning opportunities; attracting business, civic, and artistic entrepreneurs; and keeping young talent from moving away. High school reform and pressing demands for building and renovating high school buildings provide an opportunity for initiating such community revitalization.

There are many reasons for this problem, prominent among them a suffocating concern for economy and efficiency without a commensurate concern for student learning and development. We believe an even more fundamental problem is that high schools have lost their sense of place in their communities and are failing to serve as sensible places for learning. They no longer serve as places that are connected to the real world that matters to students and to others in the community. And they do not make common sense about learning, learners, and learning opportunities.

Students are in school only a small portion of their day. Eighty-one percent of the time they are outside of school and they are learning. The questions are what are they learning? From whom are they learning? How is that learning connected back to the school?

Thirty years ago, educational historian Larry Cremin wrote "If our concern is with educators we cannot restrict our attention to the schools for education is not synonymous with schooling. Children and adults - learn outside school as well as - perhaps more than - in school. To say this is not to belittle the importance of the schools, it is to give proper weight to all the other educating forces in American society: the family and the community; student peer groups; television and the mass media; the armed forces; corporate training programs; libraries; museums; churches;...

These smaller places must be sensibly designed to provide supportive learning environments, ones that move away from concerns for control, order, and stability and embrace states of mind we normally associate with powerful learning - understanding, interest, passion, engagement, enjoyment, and motivation. They must encourage the relationships between adults and youth and youth and youth as they learn and collaborate with one another to establish a sense of self and community.

We believe that place, can matter to students as much as the learning opportunities provided. Indeed, the nature of the physical place is a key determinate in what learning opportunities can be provided and how successful they will be the answer to the brain drain in Rhode Island at the college level may be attributed more to this lack of connection to knowing there is a place for them in Rhode Island than any other indicator. Why stay in a place where you don't think there is a place for?

In this age of the cell phone, instant messaging, Internet, and email, society is less tethered to places than ever before. This trend will continue, so educators and the community need to look for ways to provide a physical and social tether for our young people. . At the Met our students have internships where they develop a sense of place. 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 where adults are actually doing the things they want to learn. Our internship programs and other connections to the community of adults and the places they work are key to this effort to re-couple the generations and provide sensible places by connecting the high school place, the workplace and the community.

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 around schools with new DNA. Surely we are in need of a new genetic code for high school facilities that create small school environments where learning and teaching is full of vim and vigor and where assessments are meaningful to everyone and pegged to real world standards.

The systemic work of designing and building schools that meet our student's and our society's needs has to start immediately. Bonds all over Rhode Island and the nation are already passed. The test will be whether they design new program and facilities that create environments where students are known well by adults, and where the landscape becomes one of joy rather than of betrayal.

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 for our youth and our future well-being. We cannot afford to create those places in isolation from the rest of the community.

Small schools, create the environment that interacts with a community both in and outside of school. Let's make use our bond funds wisely and invest in small schools that make the difference allowing all the places in the community to make the difference.