February 14, 2018

Schools’ Space Crunch Spurs Innovative Plans

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) are crowded, but the challenge for the community, its educators, and architects as they look ahead to an October 2 facilities referendum is not just to provide more room for students and staff, but to create the kinds of spaces that will help to transform the learning endeavor from a traditional industrial-age process to a 21st-century model.

In describing the town hall meetings held last Thursday with architect Prakash Nair and education expert Heidi Hayes Jacobs and attended by a total of about 150 community members, PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane said, “There was an excitement about how the transformation of space in our schools could also transform learning district-wide.”

Emphasizing that “schools should reflect the world for which we are preparing our students,” Cochrane noted that participants at the meetings showed “an appreciation for how the skills our students need for the contemporary world, skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving, could be learned better in flexible, comfortable spaces that inspire students to apply and create knowledgeСnot just be recipients of it.”

Cochrane also asserted the need to provide the time and the training for teachers to use the space in new ways. “I think people left with the sense that this referendum is not just about expanding space, but about transforming learning,” he said. “We are not, for example, adding a large addition at the high school, but looking instead to renovate and repurpose interior spaces, such as courtyards and hallways, to create welcoming, inspiring, and smaller learning communities.”

He added, “We are growing in numbers, yes, but we are looking to use the transformation of space to create a stronger sense of community and human connection.”

Nair, in showing slides of schools around the world designed by his architecture firm Fielding Nair International (FNI), cited the growing “relevance gap” between what children are learning inside and outside school, warning that schools are in danger of going the way of the post office in becoming obsolete. He praised PPS for its record of accomplishment and for its outstanding students and teachers, but “when it comes to buildings, you’re way behind the times,” he said.

Quoting Princeton High School
Principal Gary Snyder’s observation that “We need to break down walls, both literally and figuratively,” Nair described the current PHS building with its additions over the decades as “a 100-year-old model, completely out of date, suitable for educating students for the industrial age.”

Nair went on to propose “three bold moves” to create “a school heart,” “a collaborative hub,” and “flexible learning zones,” with skylights built over the three courtyards.

Jacobs, whose latest of more than 13 books is titled Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments, emphasized that the future in education and in the larger world will be significantly different from the past. “Learners create and share knowledge differently from previous generations,” she said.

Discussing the need for educators to understand “new literacies: digital, media, and global,” Jacobs warned, “Knowledge is burgeoning in every field every day.” Contemporary teachers and students, she said, need to be “literate self-navigators; responsible risk-takers; professional learners; social contractors, listening with understanding; media critics, communicating with clarity; savvy media-makers, working interdependently; mindful citizens; global ambassadors; and innovative designers.

Cochrane pointed out, “We’re still in the process,” of planning for the referendum, with more meetings ahead with students, teachers, and the larger community. The architects will return next month to share more details, especially regarding the proposed new school for grades five and six on the Valley Road site.

PPS will submit preliminary building plans to the State Department of Education in April. No cost estimates have been determined at this point, but Cochrane, emphasizing the importance of responsible investment, mentioned that the tax burden would be somewhat mitigated by the possibility of money from the state and PPS’s plan to retire debt obligations in 2022 and 2023.