Student vision drives building design for new middle school
Gardiner Middle School seventh graders Reese Kile (left) and Emily Kraft work on a model of what they think a middle school should look like. The class, through the SchoolsNEXT competition, has influenced Oregon City School District’s plans for a new Gardiner. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
When the Oregon City School District decided to build a new middle school, administrators relied on an extraordinary amount of student input.
Food dispensers in lockers and swimming pool hallways didn’t make it into the final plans, but students’ real needs and anxieties shaped the school’s architecture.
District leaders saw a new school as a chance to look at education from the ground up, marrying the architecture to the district’s evolving education philosophy of looking at learning through students’ eyes.
“We wanted to really change up this middle school experience,” said Gardiner Principal Michael Sweeten.
Oregon City’s 2018 bond included a new Gardiner Middle School and completely renovating Ogden Middle School. The Ogden redesign will incorporate many of the Gardiner ideas. The district hopes to finish the schools in summer 2021.
The district started community engagement more than a year before the bond passed. District leaders and the architect say student voice was essential.
District staff conducted “empathy” interviews with students, asking what was important to them. They surveyed high schoolers about their middle school experience, and they asked fifth graders what excited and worried them about middle school.
Design committee members shadowed students for a day, observing and asking about their lives.
Ogden and Gardiner classes researched design questions, and students from both schools made up nearly half of the middle school design team.
Through the SchoolsNEXT Design Competition last school year, Gardiner’s sixth grade bilingual class of about 50 students was most involved. The competition challenges students to propose new learning environments. The class deeply researched education buildings, taking field trips to look at schools and meeting regularly with the Gardiner architect.
Project designer David Johnson, a BRIC Architecture associate principal, called the level of student involvement remarkable. BRIC focuses on K-12 education building, and Johnson has been working on schools since 1995.
“We wouldn’t have come to where we did if we didn’t have their perspective,” he said.
He applauded the district for embracing the rare opportunity of building a school to rethink what a school should look like. He said the design team recognized that it was a chance to think about teaching and learning, not just wall placements and finishes.
Johnson said that in his experience districts might put a couple of students on a design team but to have students as 12 of the 27 design committee members changed the dynamic. It gave the students confidence to speak up, he said. Johnson said students discussed everything from tactile elements for visually challenged peers to the importance of art and sculpture.
“Often they were the most prepared members of the committee,” Johnson said.
Gardiner bilingual teacher Keely Rock said her SchoolsNEXT team started with the question: With no limits, what is a dream school?
Ideas such as riding to school on dragons wouldn’t be practical, so the students winnowed their plans down through different evaluations. They interviewed fellow students, and they surveyed teachers. They talked to custodians, office staff and cafeteria workers.
They wrote belief statements of what they wanted as learners, such as a school that promoted activity and healthy habits, and they built models. They addressed committees and discussed ideas with professionals. Much of the time, they taught themselves. Rock said she didn’t know how to scale models or to find the ideal dry-erase board, so she challenged the students to find solutions themselves.
Students fiercely advocated for their plans to the decision-makers, including the school board. Students’ views mattered, said Oregon City School Board Chair Evon Tekorius.
“They live in those buildings way more than we do,” she said.
The now-seventh graders are still pressing for their Gardiner ideas as part of this year’s SchoolsNEXT effort.
On a recent afternoon, Rock brought out the models from last year. They had been damaged over the summer and would need some repairs.
“This is an opportunity,” seventh grader Gus Murino-Brault called from the back of the classroom. He said now they could add new ideas.
The students say they feel empowered.
“We were sixth graders building a school,” Ava Hsieh said. “I never thought I would be doing that.”
The students will have moved on to high school before the middle schools are completed, but they see the impact of their work.
“It’s not every day you get to do something to give other people a better education,” seventh grader Keely Merten said.
Key areas of the final design aim to address student stress points, such as the passing time between classes. Schools are often set up with teachers in mind, with related subject classrooms next to each other. Students must rush all over the building. Gardiner will have “learning neighborhoods,” pods of core subject classrooms around a common area.
Lockers can also prove stressful. Students are awash in numbers: student IDs, rooms, bus routes, locker combinations for class and gyms. Gardiner will have cubbyholes in a neighborhood learning center.
The neighborhood classrooms will have glass and moveable walls facing the common areas. The design aims to foster teacher collaboration and create student communities.
Students said outdoor play equipment was important and they wanted more places to gather with friends. The school will have supervised but somewhat private places where students can feel safe and still have some autonomy.
The lunchroom concept received a major overhaul. Big, crowded, noisy common areas can be overwhelming for many students. Gardiner will have a large room but also quiet spaces where students can sit with a few friends or do homework.
The school will have more single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms and no urinals. The locker room will have large gender-specific changing rooms and single-occupant changing rooms.
Seventh grader Reyna Toro Hernandez said the group had some tough conversations about identity but it also helped broaden their perspectives.
“We didn’t want anyone to feel excluded,” she said.
All along the way, district leaders were looking for things that would make students passionate about learning.
“We started with an aspiration of what we wanted learning to look like in this new building,” Sweeten said, “and then we built a building around that to facilitate that learning.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA