In this spirit of collaboration, the team’s discussions yielded some very interesting and exciting approaches to transform the traditional high school into an interactive and multidimensional space.
+ The long corridor should be supplanted by a central, indoor courtyard space where meaningful discussion and collaboration can occur.
+ Nodes containing various functions can be used to break up such an area and soften the noise within the courtyard.
+ Flexibility can be obtained by designing nodes to contain small learning communities suited to different learning styles.
+ Learning occurs best when information is integrated into an individual’s knowledge base.
+ Inspiration can come from the most remote or unexpected places.
+ Buildings should be oriented to take advantage of views, daylighting, and natural ventilation.
Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.

Click here for more information.

A New High School
Natrona County School District, Natrona County, Wyoming
The opportunity to design a new high school completely from scratch allowed this team to challenge itself.
By Charles Linn, FAIA

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The Natrona County School District is big. It Covers 5,340 square miles including the city of Casper, Wyoming, and eight other towns. Eleven thousand, five hundred students are enrolled in the district, which includes four high schools, seven middle schools, and 27 elementary schools. Many estimate that the greater Casper area will reach a population of 100,000 for the 2010 census. The district is planning three major high school projects in the next five years: a new high school for 1,000 to 1,200 students; and the renovation or replacement of two high schools for 1,000 to 1,200 students each. All of these projects are in a facility plan approved by the State of Wyoming with an investment of more than $100 million over five to seven years. The need for the new high school results from a system-wide grade reconfiguration effort. Currently ninth grade is in junior high, but the district intends to transition to grades 9 to 12 for high schools. The two existing schools are currently overcapacity—adding the ninth grade is what drives the need for an additional high school, not a surge in student population.

Seated: Linda Nix, Natrona County School Board; John Pfluger, Cuningham Group Architecture. Standing: NCSB superintendent Jim Lowham; Trung Le, AIA, OWP/P Architects; Mark Antrim, associate superintendent, Facilities and Technology, and Dennis E. Bay, facilities planner/construction manager, both of the Natrona County School Board. Photo © Bryan Becker.

The Challenge
The challenge the district brought to the National School Design Institute was the design of the new high school. A requirement is that the design last for 30 years, but allow for the quick and efficient reconfiguring of most of the facility’s spaces. The design should support a collaborative culture—incorporating ideas from dialogue with current and past students—regarding educational focus, challenges of student engagement, and how to encourage academic rigor.

The district is especially interested in design concepts which embed the social and technological culture that today’s students require to be engaged in learning. The district has a high level of concern about student engagement, and seeks to understand and incorporate design that better address the interest and needs of the students.

Representatives from NCSD have visited many schools in the region. Generally speaking, they found new schools to be not unlike schools built 30 to 50 years ago. Their ambition is, instead, to transform learning spaces and instructional strategies to better engage all students in collaborative learning processes.

The Solution
The Natrona County team determined that the best schools function somewhat like a “kitchen table,” that is, that they contain spaces which create common ground and drive collaboration. As Superintendent Jim Lowham put it, “As we gathered around our ‘kitchen table,’ we dined on courses of deconstruction and assembly. Most notably, we addressed the most important task of helping our students discover and nurture their calling through the alignment of state-of-the art learning spaces with educational programs.”

Recognizing that meaningful human interaction plays a fundamental role in cognitive development, the team decided to reenvision the traditional school hallway. The group believes that long hallways can be isolating and as such do not support this kind of learning, so they were left out of the design. As a result, a generous and dynamic courtyard space emerged. Current technology, such as wireless access, is central to the plan, and the courtyard could provide a wide variety of informal learning opportunities. Just as the group met at a “kitchen table” for this charrette, this central space serves to encourage students to engage in their own “table talk” to collaborate on projects, discuss global issues or take a break from a busy day.

To help break up the volume and soften acoustical implications of this open plan, colorful, circular nodes are located throughout the courtyard. Each node is flexible and adaptable to the students’ diverse range of learning styles, like a small learning community. The commons and library each anchor the ends of the courtyard. Other nodes interspersed throughout the space can serve as “rental” spaces for independent student research, interior classrooms or student teacher gathering spaces. With the nodes in place, the “in-between” spaces come alive. These spaces are like connective tissues that weave together the various small learning communities and the classroom areas on the sides of the community space. Learning occurs best when information is integrated into an individual’s knowledge base, and therefore, our design provides appropriate support structures or “scaffolding” to facilitate the subsequent stage of development, which include flexible and adaptable spaces to meet diverse learning styles and ever-changing technology.