Design of fourth middle school nearly complete

Ryan McKinnon

WILLIAMSBURG— In September 2018, 600 middle school students will walk into the newly constructed James Blair Middle School.

The building where they will attend sixth, seventh and eighth grades will bear little resemblance to the schools where they completed their elementary years. Students will leave behind traditional classrooms with bulletin boards, bookshelves and textbooks and enter a building with movable glass walls, rolling desks and chairs, and technology integrated throughout the building.

The design process for the new school is 95 percent complete, and on Tuesday a representative from the design firm Fanning Howey gave the Williamsburg-James City County School Board an update on the process.

Michael Hall, a school design specialist and the president of Fanning Howey, showed the board conceptual pictures and floor plans for the new school. The design is inspired by the principles of 21st-century learning, which emphasizes student collaboration, project-based learning and technology.

Hall showed the board the basic "neighborhood," which will house six classrooms surrounding a 2,950 square-foot collaboration space. The collaboration space is filled with movable furniture, tables where students can work on group projects and couches. The classrooms have glass walls opening to the collaboration space, and students can write on the non-glass walls of the classroom.

Resistance to change

Although 21st-century learning has been highly touted by education experts, the response to the new school's design has been mixed.

"They may have left a little bit of common sense on the drafting table," said Heath Richardson, a member of the James City County Planning Commission, referring to the glass walls. "How academically suitable is that for the (middle school) age group?"

And some teachers who work in schools designed by Fanning Howey have similar thoughts.

Robyn McDonald-Gordon teaches eighth grade English at Princeton Middle School in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was designed by the company.

She said the middle school students have had a hard time adapting to the glass walls, and she has put curtains across the middle third of the wall.

"After two weeks (in the new building) teachers in those rooms realized how distracting that is. When someone walks by the kids all turn and look," she said. "Even the teachers are going to turn around and look."

McDonald-Gordon has also put castor caps on the wheels of the tables, and she said most teachers rarely move the tables.

"The first month the kids are going to love everything. They will spin around in the seats and roll back and forth," she said. "The furniture is irritating."

McDonald-Gordon teaches classroom management as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati. She said room design impacts behavior, and she questions the idea of "21st-Century learning."

"I would ask someone to define for you what 21st-Century learning means," she said. "We were sold on that too, but I was wondering what does that mean?"

New approaches based on research

On Thursday, Hall said challenging the status quo is one of the most predictably difficult aspects of selling teachers on the new design.

"It is human inclination – and I see it in myself – to resist change," Hall said. "The starting point for most people is, 'I want what I've got, and that is what I'm comfortable with.'"

Hall said the design features which his firm has incorporated into the design of eight schools across the country are based on years of studies evaluating how students best learn.

The glass walls, mobile furniture and changing class sizes combine to create an environment where group work is easily facilitated, students can be active and teachers can work together as a team, Hall said.

"It is physically impossible for children to sit still because their nervous system and physiology is changing and active," Hall said. "I have five kids, eight grandkids and two great-grandkids, but I have never been able to succeed at getting any of them to sit still. It's not that they're rebellious; it's just that their physiology is developing at too fast a rate."

'Phenomenal' new building

Dr. Thomas Tucker, the superintendent of Princeton City School District, said the new building in his district has changed the way teachers run class.

"At the beginning of this century, everyone sat in nice little rows. Those days in Princeton are gone," he said. "The classroom space can be converted to accommodate various teaching methodologies."

Amanda Setters, who teaches ninth grade history at Princeton High School, which is part of the same facility as Princeton Middle School, described the new facility as "phenomenal."

She said the glass walls were not a distraction because she rarely lectures and instead has her students do group activities.

"I don't do a lot where they have to be laser focused on me," she said.

And she said the glass walls have created a greater sense of accountability for teachers. A department head or administrator can now observe what is happening in a classroom any time they walk the halls.

Teachers who may have sat at their desk while surrounded by chaos or sleeping students can no longer hide behind a closed door, Setters said.

"If you are going to be in that arena, are you worthy of this district, are you worthy of those students?" Setters said. "You get used to it, being on display all the time."

Setters said some teachers love the new building, while others hate it.

Hall said the beauty of the new design is that it accommodates both teachers who embrace 21st-century learning and those who do not.

"If (teachers) want to revert to a traditional environment, they can put butcher paper on the glass walls, close the doors and operate as they did before," Hall said, emphasizing that this is not what he would hope for.

"This allows them to go either direction," he said, quoting educational thinker William Daggett. "The building cannot get in your way. There are no excuses."

Teacher involvement

Hall said a major factor in the success of a 21st- century learning building is training the staff how to change their teaching style to fit the new facility.

"Dr. Constantino knows there is a huge professional-development component," Hall said. "You have to get the teaching staff on board to carry this out."

Hall said his firm had met with teachers from every department in W-JCC schools to solicit input at the outset of the process, and that as the firm made design decisions, they would pass those along to committees of teachers and administrators for feedback.

School spokesperson Betsy Overkamp-Smith said the teachers who provided input on the process were busy, and she did not connect the Gazette with anyone who had input. 

Hall said while teacher input was vital to the process, Constantino's vision was the driving force behind the design.

"(Constantino) is the sparkplug for innovation. He has listened to experts and reached out across the country," Hall said. "And he has been vocal if he sees us going backward with the design."

Setters said she thinks her success in the new building was influenced by the communication coming from the administration during construction.

Her district gave teachers tours of the new building in the year before construction completed which allowed her to visualize how to adjust her lesson planning for the new space.

"Involve the staff in the day-to-day decisions and say, 'This is what it looks like, come see it,'" Setters said. "Those tours were really important for us."

But, she said even with a shiny new building, effective teaching requires effective teachers.

"You can give every new-age perfect piece of technology in the world…but if you put a crappy teacher in there, you will not get the results you want," Setters said. "I think it is the teacher in the classroom that has the biggest impact, but the facilities give the ability to open our mind, so if you hire the right staff and put them in the right building, magic happens."

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.

Note: This has been updated to clarify Overkamp-Smith's response. 

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