Student-Centered Design

Methuen High School Entry

Featured in School Planning & Management

By Regan Shields Ives

Cultivating the mind of the 21st-century learner requires a different school of thought than it did in years past. There is a direct correlation between the physical environment and student achievement, and this is a critical component of schools serving as the foundation for educational success. Creating space that is integrated into an environment that fosters both physical and virtual collaboration as well as connectivity to the surrounding world (all while maintaining flexibility for future development) has become the touchstone for the 21st-century schools. Educators are also constantly working to adapt teaching styles with the current demands of their students. What happens when educational philosophies and building facilities are not aligned? Methuen High School faced this dilemma and prevailed with a fully renovated, forward-thinking student-centered design.

Built in 1975, Methuen High School was constructed in the experimental, open-classroom design format popular in the United States in the 1970s. The project was initially praised for its progressive design and was awarded an AIA Honor Award for design. The academic wing consisted of a large, deep floor plate (175 feet x 630 feet) with high ceilings to accommodate the numerous clusters of open teaching areas. These instructional spaces were separated from the main circulation zones by low-height lockers. Additionally, the building was designed to be inward focused. The ribbon windows were narrow and non-operable since a majority of the classrooms were located on the interior of the building. In some ways the school was similar to an airplane hangar.

Unfortunately, the open classroom design concept quickly proved to be largely nonfunctional for both the Methuen educators and students. Provisions were made to create more traditional classrooms using a combination of furniture, cubical screens and temporary partitions. Additionally, a few operable window sashes were installed to bring some natural ventilation into the building. After almost 40 years of enduring these conditions the school was in jeopardy of losing its accreditation and the Methuen administration determined serious action needed to be taken.

To better understand the decision behind creating an open classroom facility it is important to understand the principals behind the ideology. The underlying concept behind the open classroom was to allow for flexible learning within a single, large classroom where several teachers could oversee groups of students of varying skill levels working together. The idea was that removing the physical walls separating the classrooms promoted collaborative group learning allowing teachers to serve as both instructors and facilitators. Advocates of the open classroom plan asserted that student’s individual learning styles could be best facilitated in this more free-form manner and that the traditional “box” lecture style classroom made it difficult to accommodate flexibility.

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With today’s current focus on flexible, student-based collaboration and a similar desire to think outside the classroom “box”, one might wonder why this concept was not successful in the 1970s. One underlying reason is that while facilities were constructed to allow for flexibility, teachers and administrators had not fully developed the curriculum to support the ideas behind open classroom learning. This was the case at Methuen High School. While the building allowed for free-form collaboration, the teachers continued to instruct in the traditional lecture-style format. The acoustics of the space played a major role in impeding student’s abilities to focus in the “classroom”. The high ceilings made it difficult to control sound within the academic wing. The low-height lockers did very little to divide the educational areas from circulation space. Students actually had to pass through one teaching space to get to another, further compounding the number of distractions. Equally detrimental to the educational environment was the limited access to natural light and ventilation.

In 2009, the City of Methuen conducted a full assessment of the existing facility in order to apply for the state funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to assist in the creation of a new high school facility. As it turned out, the open classroom plan was not the only issue with the building. After almost 40 years of service life, the building systems were nearing or, in some cases, at the end of their useful life. The HVAC equipment could no longer provide the necessary ventilation required for the volume of space. The fire protection system did not meet current code requirements. Most of the plumbing services to the two science labs no longer worked, impacting the student’s ability to conduct experiments. The building also failed to meet current code requirements for universal access throughout the building and site. With so many factors working against Methuen High School, it seemed as though the existing building was destined for demolition. There was, however, one saving grace: good bones.

Finegold Alexander Architects, known for their complicated and creative renovation work, saw potential in the existing building and submitted a proposal to renovate the existing building versus tear it down. Fortunately, the firm was unanimously awarded the project by the City of Methuen and the MSBA. The winning concept was to use the existing building structure and reconfigure it to better suit the needs of the 21st-century student.

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The move to retain the existing building was perhaps one of the first lessons for the school in sustainable design practices, since the most sustainable building is the one that already exists. The building, in a sense, became a living model and teaching tool for sustainable design practices.

By slicing large skylight enclosed light wells down the center of the existing academic wing the floor plan could be reconfigured to allow for two double-loaded corridors on either side of the light well with acoustically sound, enclosed classrooms. The internal classrooms, outfitted with interior windows facing the light wells, would receive natural light directly from the skylights. At the exterior classrooms, the existing narrow ribbon windows were cut down to the floor slab and replaced with large windows allowing for abundant natural light, views and ventilation for the exterior classrooms. These basic human elements not only would reduce the energy costs but, more importantly, were proven to increase the rates of student achievement.

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In addition to flooding the building with natural light, the light wells serve as the main circulation spine throughout the academic wing providing opportunities for students to collaborate outside of the classroom. Along this “street” are seating alcoves for impromptu meetings as well as glass enclosed small group collaboration spaces. Bridges cross the spine connecting one side of the building to the other. Teachers can use the open space as an extension of the classroom for breakout space or, in the case of the physics teacher, to do to conduct experiments on speed and inertia. The classroom and circulation plan organization promotes relationship building among student-to-student, student-to-teacher and teacher-to-teacher.

Technology plays a major role in 21st-century education. Students are highly relational and demand quick access to knowledge. Connectivity to resources beyond the classroom walls is imperative to preparing students for the future. Due to the rate at which technology changes it is often difficult and expensive for schools to stay current with the latest trend. When the early design for Methuen was in place each classroom was to be outfitted with a SmartBoard. By the time the project moved to final design documents it was determined that the outmoded SmartBoard system would be replaced with digital display panels. Each student is assigned an iPad at the start of the school year and can connect wirelessly to the school network anywhere in the building or beyond to access assignments and transmit information to and from teachers and peers. Ensuring that students learn to be adept with the technological tools today, regardless of what their trajectory is beyond high school, is imperative for success in the world.

Transforming Methuen High School from a 1970s open-classroom plan to a forward-thinking, flexible learning environment, all within the shell of the existing building has greatly benefited the students, administration and community, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Working closely with the administration during the planning stages, Finegold Alexander Architects was able to weave the key principals of 21st-century learning into the fabric of the existing building. Their work responded to both the physical and educational pedagogy of the Methuen School district and continues to foster an environment that will prepare its students to do great things.

Full article here.