A blueprint for change.
"We finished our first assignment yesterday, Mr. Jacobs. Now what are we supposed to do?"
"Hey! I need a pass to go to the library because I left my books there."
"Man, I feel crummy today. Do I have to do this?"
"Settle down, everybody!"
As Rob Jacobs' Modular Technology class gets underway at Chaska High School, the student-teacher banter is no different than you'd hear elsewhere around the country. The difference is that these students have facilities that other school districts only dream of.
State-of-the-art computers are scattered around the room, each loaded with software related to a different type of technology, from robotics to hydraulics, from video animation to digital sound. The students, typically in teams of two, work at their own pace through the computer-instructed units, stopping to conduct experiments and take quizzes along the way. The computer tracks their progress by student identification number and keeps records of which answers they got wrong on which tests and modules.
Meanwhile, in the classroom next door, several students doing an independent study in architectural drafting log on to several of the 25 computers loaded with CAD software. Jacobs, chairman of the technology education department, flits between the small groups of students - chiding some, questioning others - and pouncing on every teaching opportunity that arises. He does not stand at the front of the room and lecture, nor does he give everyone identical assignments.
Looking to the future
The environment at Chaska High School epitomizes learner-focused, self-directed, technologically advanced learning - which is exactly what Minnesota's Independent School District 112 had in mind when it spent $21 million to build the new facility. Located approximately 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, the school of 1,600 students opened in fall 1996.
Three years earlier, a design committee that included teachers, students, parents, administrators and community members had begun the process of evaluating the types of spaces the new school would need. One exercise the team engaged in was a futures workshop - looking at trends in education and design and assessing which ones might affect the curricula and hence the building.
"We make sure the building is aligned with the type of teaching the district wants to do," explains David Leschak, an architect with Hammel Green and Abrahamson, Inc., the Minneapolis firm that designed the 295,000-square-foot school. "This district was well-organized and knew it wanted its high school to be learner focused, team-centered and community friendly."
Added to the equation was the district's rapid growth. As housing developments have replaced farm fields, class sizes have risen accordingly. With the growth projected to continue, the school had to be equipped to support the needs of many students for many years to come. In a word, it had to be flexible.
Hammel Green and Abrahamson translated the district's wish list into an architectural design that features the "house concept." Sometimes referred to as "a school within a school," a house is an almost self-contained area within the larger building.
Chaska High School has three houses - red, blue and green - which are color-coded from the walls and lockers all the way down to the chairs in each classroom. That makes it easy to find your way around. Each two-story house has 16 classrooms situated around a commons area, its own administrative office (and assistant principal, or dean), and two resource and planning areas for teachers. At the front of each house are four labs for classes needing special equipment, such as family science, physical science and technical education.
Chaska students are assigned a house alphabetically, but they rarely stay in the same house all day. Most attend classes throughout the building, using the spacious main corridor that connects all three houses to get around. Opening off this main street are the office, cafeteria, media center and offices for community education and the school nurse.
"The decentralized house concept allows students to have a home base, an area they identify as theirs. It puts them in smaller groups and breaks down the scale [of the school] so students can establish ties with people and feel more comfortable - as though they belong and aren't just a number,'" notes Leschak.
In contrast, he says, high schools built 30 or more years ago reflect "the cells and bells" mentality. All those classrooms are the same size, and the only places students can really socialize are in the narrow corridors or outside on the front steps.
"Now, with an interdisciplinary or team-centered approach, a school needs different sized spaces to accommodate different sizes of groups, such as breakout space for five or six students working on a project as well as areas that can hold two or three classes of 25 students each," Leschak says.
"Students also need gathering areas, which I refer to as 'decompression space.'"
At Chaska, for instance, two of the houses feature open "forums" where students often lounge; the third house has a closed forum with stationary seating.
Chaska's design confirms the district's commitment to interdisciplinary teaching. Rather than clustering teachers of the same subject together, the house concept sprinkles them throughout the school. Each house, for example, includes office and planning areas where English, science, history and math teachers mingle, enabling them to easily coordinate their lesson plans.
The team-centered design requires some adjustments, admits Jacobs. He's based in the green house, while his two colleagues are in the blue and red houses. "It makes it more difficult to talk to each other. In another school, we'd probably all have our offices together," says Jacobs. "But you can also learn a lot from the other teachers, such as how someone else approaches a subject."
Time well spent
Even more revolutionary than the school's design, however, was its change in scheduling. When Chaska High School students made the move to the new facility, they traded seven 45-minute periods for four 90-minute "blocks" each day. The school day begins at 7:20 a.m. and ends at 2:15 p.m., with 10 minutes' passing time allowed between blocks. The design team made the recommendation after visiting several schools with block scheduling.
Students and teachers alike were apprehensive about spending 90 minutes together at a time. But once they tried the concept, they gave it an A+.
"You really get to know the teachers and the people in your classes because you do more work in groups and teams," says one student. "And everybody gets up and moves around the room, so it's not like you're sitting in one place the whole time."
"I like it because we can get so much stuff done at school - there's less homework!" adds another.
As might be expected, the teachers have a slightly different perspective. "Initially, it was a shock because you're used to doing so much of the talking - but you can't talk for 90 minutes," says Rick Rogers, who teaches the power technology classes.
"You learn to balance the time by not talking more than 20 or 30 minutes. That gives students more time to do what they want, which is hands-on projects. And it's good for doing bigger projects. [For instance] if you start gluing a dresser, you can't finish it in 45 minutes."
Chaska's teachers have one planning block and three teaching blocks each day. In addition to prompting teachers to vary their instructional methods, block scheduling saves them time. With half the number of classes as in a seven-period day, teachers don't have to clean up after one class and get the next one going as frequently.
Will build to suit
Chaska High School puts its teachers' flexibility to the test each day. For the building itself, the need for flexibility arrived early in the game: the day it opened. Instead of housing grades 10-12 as originally planned, the school had to accommodate the 9th grade as well. A school levy had failed, temporarily depriving the district of operating funds for the old high school (which is slated for renovation into a grades 8-9 facility).
The addition of more lockers and students was barely noticeable, except to the older students who weren't keen on having freshmen underfoot. The bigger and more obvious change, however, occurred in the area of technical education.
In 1993, when the school was being designed, no one spoke up for that portion of the curriculum; the interest simply wasn't there.
"The vocational program at the time was on the decline. Not many students were taking advantage of the classes available," says Leschak.
He recalls some of the tradespeople who constructed the school expressing surprise when they discovered it had no wood or metal shop. The only technical education space to speak of was a small shop behind the stage, designated for constructing scenery.
"Then the school made a new hire, and that person brought a lot of energy and a renaissance to the curriculum," Leschak adds.
That new hire was Jacobs. The program he inherited in the 1993-94 school year offered eight classes; enrollment was so small that his position was part-time. Three years later, when Chaska High School opened, the technical education department offered 49 classes and had one part-time and three full-time instructors. But the original blueprints for the new school had not allocated space for these specialized classes.
To make room for Jacobs's department, the school district loaded two classrooms with specialized computer equipment. It also converted one lab into a power tech classroom: Electricians installed additional outlets and part of one wall was replaced with large doors to the outside so cars could be driven in. The small area behind the stage was converted into a full-fledged woodworking shop and retrofitted with dust-removal equipment.
Space remains tight. The wood shop, for example, can handle no more than 18 students at a time. Students often are turned away from popular classes such as consumer automotive and introductory woodworking simply because the converted classrooms can't safely accommodate students as well as their equipment, tools and projects.
Jacobs attributes the program's newfound popularity to the department's philosophy: Keep class fun, keep it interesting and provide information that's useful.
"We focus on how the student can apply the information to a career path. For instance, we bring in guest speakers and take a lot of field trips to industry. Students can see how drawings are turned into actual parts or products - and see the people doing it making $70,000 or more a year," says Jacobs. "Nothing makes me happier than to have a student look up from a project and say, 'I think I'm going to go to school for this.'"
He gives much of the credit for the program's turnaround to Chaska High School's principal, Jim O'Connell. It was at O'Connell's urging that the necessary changes were made to the new building.
"You can have a lot of ideas, but without the support of the administration, nothing will happen," notes Jacobs. "Not all students will go to college. Some will go to technical schools or right into the workforce. Our principal has the foresight to accommodate those students."
Within the next five years, those accommodations may become more spacious and specialized. The architectural plans commissioned back in 1993 call for the future construction of a fourth house to hold the growing student population. Like the other houses, the new one will feature classrooms, decentralized offices and labs. But this time, Jacobs and his colleagues are virtually guaranteed a say in the design of those spaces. Their vocational course offerings are so popular that they're turning away students - and numbers speak volumes.
RELATED ARTICLE: CHECKING OUT THE OPTIONS
"What should I be?"
"Where should I go to school?"
When Chaska High School students put those questions to Susan Hoff, she has plenty of resources to guide them to. As manager of the school's career center, Hoff can sit them down in front of a keyboard for a computerized skills test or school sort. Or she can point them to shelves crammed with videos from four-year colleges and universities or pull out course catalogs from two-year, business and technical schools.
"Our goal is to get students into the career center early, in ninth or 10th grade, so they start getting a sense of their options," says Hoff, who relies on a staff of 27 volunteers to catalog, file and keep track of all the school and career-oriented information.
"For instance, a lot of students think just about four-year colleges and don't realize the scholarship opportunities available at technical colleges," she says.
In addition to bringing in representatives from various schools and the uniformed services, the career center has co-sponsored a career fair with local businesses. Recent alumni who have followed different career and education paths have returned for a frank "Life After Chaska" discussion with juniors and seniors.
Hoff also arranges job shadow days for students with a career goal already in mind. She's lined up such opportunities for people who wanted to know more about being a sign-language teacher, a pastry chef, a masseuse and even a Harley-Davidson motorcycle repairmen.
Sandra R. Sabo is a freelance writer and editor in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.
For more information about school designs by Hammel Green and Abrahamson, Inc., contact Larissa Rodriguez, public relations and communications manager, HGA, Inc., 1201 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403-1985; (612) 337-4100.
Contact Chaska High School at 545 Pioneer Trail, Chaska, MN 55318; (612) 361-5470.
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|Title Annotation:||innovative facilities in Chaska High School|
|Author:||Sabo, Sandra R.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1998|
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