A growing array of technological innovations is making mainstream schools more accessible for disabled students.
Credit: Paul Moseley
Accessibility for All
When Century High School in Rochester, Minnesota, opened in 1998, students and others with physical disabilities found a wheelchair-friendly environment designed to ensure that such physical disabilities wouldn't impede full participation in both academic and extracurricular life at the school. Examples of the innovative design elements include bathrooms with left- or right-hand opening doors to accommodate individuals with use of only one side of their body; versatile lab stations that can be adjusted for students who use wheelchairs; and two elevators in each section of the building (the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] calls for just one). In the auditorium, the control room was modified (the viewing window was lowered, as were the controls) so that students in wheelchairs would be able to participate fully in theater productions. District special education teachers initially proposed the inclusive design features, noting that ADA requirements alone didn't go far enough in making buildings fully accessible for individuals with physical disabilities. The design has been so well received that the Rochester Independent School District No. 535 now incorporates these features in all renovations, new buildings, and upgrades. A team of teachers now reviews plans for accessibility before the start of any new project.
New Schools in Older Buildings
Paterson, New Jersey, is becoming a city of learning. Under the direction of state-appointed Superintendent Edwin Duroy and architect Roy Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, all or certain floors of commercial buildings, factories, churches, and synagogues are becoming schools. Renovation of existing buildings, many of them once ornate, turn-of-the-century architectural beauties, contributes to a better education for the city's students, historical preservation, and revitalization of downtown. Strickland's vision of a City of Learning coincides with Superintendent Duroy's plan to create a number of small career academies to turn around low achievement scores. Because of the small size of the schools, they often form partnerships for sports and after-school activities with the local park system or YMCA, to the benefit of both the school and the agencies. "What we are doing helps reinforce market use of downtown," says Strickland. But he notes that the City of Learning is about far more than urban revitalization and hinges on the research of such respected educational experts as Ted Sizer, Seymour Papert, and Howard Gardner. Among other things, they speak about the importance of close relationships between students and teachers and students and their communities, hands-on learning, and accommodating different learning styles. Being in the midst of a working city also affords opportunities to do real work in cooperation with city agencies and private companies, from health care to environmental conservation and mitigation.
A Post-Occupancy Assessment
In most school districts, a renovation or new building project is complete when the students and staff move into their new facility, but not at Indian Trail Elementary School in Canal Winchester, Ohio. There, a research team conducted a thorough Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) to understand how well the planning and design goals had actually been implemented in the new K-3 school building. Although POEs haven't been the norm in most education-related projects, school officials are using them more and more to both assess completed projects and to plan for future ones. The POE may be handled by the architect, by an outside organization, or by school staff. Typically, administrators, teachers, parents, community members, and students respond to interviews about the building's use of space, aesthetics, and function. Results help determine if the building fulfills the user's needs, fine-tune its use, and identify how the building contributes to creating effective learning environments. The award-winning Indian Trail POE began during design and continued into the school's occupancy. It affirmed the benefits of connecting small workspaces to classrooms, of having two gymnasiums with a multi-purpose room in between and moveable, soundproof partitions allowing for many kinds of activities and events to take place, and of providing varied spaces for quiet study and active, creative learning. Results from this POE were immediately useful in a second school designed on the same site.
Honoring the Teachers
At Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, teachers who need a quiet place to talk on the phone, e-mail parents, or prepare assignments on their computers don't have to head across campus to the faculty lounge or wait until they get home in the evening for some quiet time. They just step into the office they share with one of their colleagues, right next door to their classroom. When the three-year-old, light-filled school was designed, a top priority was to give teachers their own space, complete with computers, phones, desks, and storage. The goal was to start "treating (teachers) as professionals, raising morale, and providing them with the tools and resources so they can be the best they can be," says Principal Paula McCarthy. The school, designed by the local firm of Corley Redfoot Zack, includes a number of innovations designed to promote learning. It is outfitted with the wiring and connections needed for twenty-first-century technology, including networked computers -- wireless and desktop -- that connect to the Internet in all classrooms, a school television station, and other multimedia. Walls are made of tagboard and become giant bulletin boards. Wide corridors with couches, tables, and chairs allow students to study or receive one-on-one help outside the regular classroom. The halls also can be used to display work, and stairwells are big enough to become study space. Project rooms that have kitchens add more space for science experiments, teacher-parent conferences, or individual instruction. Some classrooms even have porches that allow for outdoor projects like bird-watching.
A Sustainable Design
Ask any student at Roy Lee Walker Elementary School about sustainability -- particularly when it comes to school design -- and be prepared to get an earful of information. Why? Because this award-winning K-5 school in McKinney, Texas, was designed and built from the ground up to be eco-friendly, taking full advantage of both natural resources and state-of-the-art technologies. Evidence of the school's commitment to a sustainable design are everywhere: from cisterns on the roof that collect rainwater (used to water the native landscaping and cultivate the school's garden) to daylight monitors that minimize the need for artificial light to a windmill that generates electricity. This environmentally sensitive design is tightly integrated into the elementary school curriculum. During fall and winter, students monitor the 10-foot-tall rain gauge as part of science class. A limestone block wall that's been incorporated into the building shows remnants of ancient fossils. And two large sundials contribute to students' understanding of the lengthening and shortening of the day. The building itself makes economical use of space -- hallways aren't just corridors used for moving from class to class. These wide-open areas house computer workstations, feature student artwork, and provide ample space for small groups to meet and work on projects.
A Nontraditional Facility
When Jessica joined other newcomers in summer kindergarten camp at Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, she found an environment carefully designed and constructed to help K-6 students learn. Like her young classmates, Jessica benefits from a thoughtful planning and design process that included then principal Peggy Bryan, staff, parents, and community members. Funded by a bond issue, then superintendent Marcia Plumleigh encouraged Bryan to design a school unlike any she had ever seen. As part of the process, Bryan and architect Thang Do visited a number of schools, looking for ways others had incorporated design features that support good teaching and learning, such as spaces for collaborative work, access to technology, and room to spread out learning materials. Bryan's staff visited with parents of students who would be likely to attend the school to ask what they wanted for their children. One key design element can be seen in large classrooms clustered around a central core in "houses." Two grade levels in six classrooms make up a house, which supports looping (a teacher stays with a group of students for two years), team teaching, and collaborative student work. More space was made available for classrooms when the decision was made not to build a cafeteria -- a building that can make lunch a noisy and crowded experience. Many of the students who attend Sherman Oaks live in small spaces with many family members. "We didn't want to put them through that at school," recalls Bryan. Although Jessica and other Sherman Oaks students will probably never know about the design process, they benefit from the planning, and show their appreciation through high attendance, good grades, and a reluctance to go home at the end of the day.
Net Courses for High Schoolers
High schooler Rachel of Forks, Washington, loves Virtual High School (VHS) classes. Now a year-long veteran, she takes two VHS classes per semester, along with regular face-to-face classes. "I like the combination, and I like the freedom of working on my own any time I want, online. I had to learn about how to write comments so that I didn't sound sarcastic, though," she says. VHS began in 1997 with just twenty-eight participating schools and has grown to include students from 183 schools throughout the United States and the world. Any high school in the country is eligible to become part of this innovative netschool, as long as they provide at least one teacher to teach a net class and appoint a faculty member as their school site VHS coordinator. Participating instructors benefit from two professional development opportunities designed to help them make the transition from the physical classroom to the virtual one. Students log on to the VHS Web site from school and from home and are required to "attend" class each day (or three times a week for students on a block schedule) and benefit from the chance to take courses that might not be offered in their regular high school. Courses range from AP-level classes like AP Calculus and AP Biology to classes on American Popular Music or Art and the Internet. As with any high school, interaction among students and staff is a critical component of the VHS. There's a student yearbook, a student and faculty lounge, and an online student showcase where students can share their work with peers, parents, and other VHS visitors. However, online classes may not be for everybody, says Rachel. "It all comes down to self-motivation and whether or not a student can work independently."