Learning spaces that encourage collaboration and physical movement, schools with natural light deep into the buildings, places for students to make things, and teacher planning centers are just some of the standout practices taking place in other schools around the world.
On Monday, Missoula County Public Schools launched its second weeklong long-range facilities planning process with a lengthy discussion about what is happening in schools far beyond the Garden City, and what could be a fit here at home.
Facilitator Nick Salmon captured his audience’s attention with a slideshow about how communities have rethought and redesigned their schools to create dynamic educational environments and curriculums.
More than 120 people – parents, grandparents, students, teachers, business people and MCPS staff – looked on in wonder as the images filled a giant screen at the Broadway Inn Convention Center.
Brightly colored learning spaces with enormous windows that define a school in Sweden garnered some admiring “oohs” from the crowd.
A gym in a Vancouver, British Columbia, school startled everyone with its wall of windows that ran the length of the facility, bringing the outdoors into the space.
It was one of those collective “aha” moments for the audience, and one that prompted Salmon to say: “This is a rethinking of P.E. as more than just another box down the hall.”
Luke O’Connell, 10, and one of the youngest participants in the process, was excited and fascinated by examples of schools with flexible furniture.
Unlike the old-school model in which chairs are welded to desks and students are sort of locked into place, schools with flexible furniture seem to have a really cool look that encourages students to want to learn more, said the Paxson Elementary student.
In particular, O’Connell said he liked that some furniture was soft, and made a good place for reading, other furniture seemed to fit people who were of different sizes, and some of the furniture was easy to move so it made working in groups easier.
After looking at environmental innovations, Salmon moved the audience onto the various models of school organization.
The range of models included everything from grade-based learning centers to career academies, to thematic schools, such as a high school for recording arts in St. Paul, Minn., and a charter school in Kansas that is focused on a projects-based curriculum.
As the new information flowed out and the audience worked in small groups on exercises to imagine new and creative learning spaces, Joe Perine couldn’t help coming back to an unanswered question.
“What is the purpose of school?” the retired East Coast educator and grandfather of an MCPS student asked in his small working group.
“I feel like all this planning is a little bit of the cart before the horse,” he said. “We can’t figure out what to do with our space until we figure out what we want to do with our education.
“Form follows function.”
Gwen Jones, a mother of three MCPS students and a Missoula attorney, said she felt the information-gathering was useful and inspiring.
“I think it is a very good broad exercise to go through,” Jones said. “I think we have a pro-education community, but our school system has finite money. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how much change is acceptable, what kind of system do we want in place and what will it cost.”
The afternoon of discussion concluded with a smaller audience of Chief Charlo, Cold Springs and Russell elementary faculty, administrators, parents and students discussing the range of options they would like to see.
Highlights from that discussion included not forgetting that one day in the near future the Missoula College building on South Avenue might be a useful space for re-homing students while school renovations take place. (A new Missoula College will soon be built on East Broadway, leaving the building next to Sentinel High School empty.)
The elementary schools voiced interest in making their front doors more obvious and effective, and making simple changes, such as opening some spaces for collaborative work.
As the process moves forward this week, Salmon said he expects the middle school and high school contingents will step forward with creative and innovative ideas.
In the end, the goal from the multi-workshop process is to have a guiding document that encapsulates what Missoula’s schools need to do in order to meet 21st century education over the next 15 years.
If such a document emerges, the district will likely ask for a bond and public support in 2015.
On Wednesday, anyone interested in learning about the week’s discussions and information is encouraged to attend the public listening session from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Broadway Conference Center.
All of the material and comments made during the week will be posted on the MCPS website at mcpsmt.org.