I recently took a trip to visit DLR Group's Seattle office, meeting the brilliant minds designing schools in the Pacific Northwest and checking out local schools along the way. One such school was Marysville Getchell High School in Marysville, Washington. This school was one of the first out of DLR's Seattle office and was the 2011 James D. MacConnell winner. This award is not a design award but instead focuses on how the facility functions and meets the educational needs of its users'. Marysville Getchell was actually on my radar well before I started at DLR due to its unique model and operations and of course, its beautiful design.
Marysville Getchell (MG) is actually four high school academies: the Academy of Construction and Engineering, the BioMed Academy, the International School of Communications, and the School for the Entrepreneur. The MG campus consists of five individual buildings, one for each of the academies and a shared commons building with dining space and athletics/fitness facilities, all interconnected and nestled under a thick forest. School had not yet started when I toured so I wasn't able to see these spaces in action but I did get to poke around a bit and chat with some administrators who had stuck around on a Friday afternoon. I found there are actually two stories to tell about the school - one of its initial design intent and use and one of its current transformation. The original story has been told countless times and here's a great video showing it off along with the space. Check it out!
I am much more interested in its current transformation. In light of shifts in district administration and budget concerns, some facets of the facility are shifting this upcoming school year. Due to the cost of maintaining separate principals and management of effectively four different high schools, administration across the campus is being centralized with one principal overseeing the entire campus. With the reduced number of staff supervising the independent buildings, the comfort level with dispersed dining is lessened and students will be consolidated into 2-3 areas during lunch. As of now, they are still sticking with the educational portion of the academy structure but it will be interesting to see if the unity and relationships the small learning community model builds hold strong without the staffing and social/dining hours and schedule to back it up. I am hoping to touch base with the administration throughout the year to see how the new organizational style is going.
Next year, I will be heading to Melbourne, Australia to study school design and use as a Fulbright Post-Graduate Scholar. It has been a long process - I started my first application in June of 2014 and after not being selected on my first attempt, I tried again and found out I was a finalist in March of this year. Here's the scoop on me and what I will be studying:
I have spent the past three years as an educational planner at an architecture firm in Austin, Texas helping plan and design schools across the United States. I earned a B.E.D. in Architecture and a B.S. in Psychology from Texas A&M University (whoop!) and a Master’s in Human-Environment Relations from Cornell University (go big red!), focusing on Facility Planning and Management with a minor in Organizational Behavior. While in Melbourne, I will be researching the design and use of innovative schools throughout Australia with the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) at the University of Melbourne. There I will be collaborating with Drs. Wesley Imms and Ben Cleveland from LEaRN and with Richard Leonard of Hayball Architects as a research team member on the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILE+TC) ARC Linkage Project.
Some background: Many schools I work with desire innovation and turn to their facilities as catalysts for change. However, we often see a disconnect between the vision of these facilities and their subsequent use and performance. This can result in missed learning opportunities for students and potential wasted capital investment.
Australian schools and designers experience a similar disconnect. There has recently been an unprecedented scale of innovative learning environment construction in Australia. This implementation was initiated to address the Melbourne Declaration in 2008 and the subsequent Building the Education Revolution (BER) program in 2010. The former called for a focus on the student-centered, active learning heralded to teach the collaborative and critical thinking skills sought by today’s employers. It has resulted in a significant, large-scale shift in the design of public schools. Part of this shift is the key linkage of all school stakeholders supported by the BER program’s emphasis on whole school change. Few, if any, other countries have seen a transformation mandate of this scale.
Further, while there are isolated examples of Australian educators leveraging these new designs to reinvent the learning experience, recent academic studies show many teachers appear to not change how they teach and many schools lack any academic improvement. The ILE+TC project aims to bridge this gap between the educational potential of innovative school designs and their actual performance. I will bring my expertise on this phenomenon in the US as I collaborate on the ILE+TC and hope to create an ongoing discussion between the two countries regarding school design, utilization, and organizational change.
My ultimate goal is to help expand the role of school architects and planners. The design process as it is, while engaging and collaborative, often only includes a small subset of the eventual users and only touches the physical structure, not the entire operational and organizational system it supports. This is especially troublesome when a school system hopes to deviate from the traditional models of teaching and learning and relies upon the building itself to create the shift. I see a new paradigm in which there is a strategic organizational alignment process integrated within design work to help school clients holistically realize their vision.
For more information about the Fulbright program, click here.
I was first introduced to educational research during my time working at an archive center at Texas A&M and sifting through old research and memos of school architect Bill Caudill, famous for school design and programming in the 1950s and 60s. His passion for making a difference through design, combined with my mother’s firsthand description of teaching seventh graders, led to a passion for improving learning environments. Schools have since been the constant lens through which I have studied the relationship of people and their environment. They are a place in which the users often have limited control yet spend the majority of their time. I feel it is a social responsibility to ensure educational spaces are as conducive to the stakeholders’ pedagogical vision as possible and provide an engaging experience for students.
I am proud to currently work at DLR Group. DLR Group is a firm that truly believes in the power of facilities to support teaching and learning. We don't just plop down buildings with identical classrooms on double-loaded corridors but understand this industrial model is not suitable to teaching the skills students today need to be successful. We thus work to align facilities aligned with the pedagogy and vision of the school district. To learn more about the firm click here.