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When Space Fosters Community

Ask any teacher on any day, and I’m willing to bet they’d be willing to share things that they appreciate about their space and what they’d most want to change or add to improve the functionality of their room. And space, on a classroom level, is really important. We ask students to do really hard work in areas where we’d never ask professionals to do complicated, nerve-inducing tasks. Here’s just one way that I know space matters to adults: When I talk about my coworking space (Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh, PA-I highly recommend it if you’re in town) people are impressed by the big windows bringing in a lot of natural light, the openness, the conference rooms you can use for meetings, and the phone booths where you can make a private call (and the exceptional coffee—La Prima, you have my heart). We care about where we spend our time, and so do our kids. A little over a week ago, I had the chance to visit Chartiers Valley Middle School, in Bridgeville, PA. It’s a public middle school, and it’s one that is very proud of its space. While the students, faculty, and staff are still acclimating to their new building, it is very clear that their design choices are strategic and thoughtful. Adrienne Floro, principal of CVMS, shared that their planning process was inclusive, asking a wide swath of folks who intersect with the school to give meaningful input on how the school would look and best serve its students.

Its student body is comprised of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, with each grade split into two teams that have their own bathrooms, lockers, multipurpose room, and classroom spaces. There are folding walls that allow for bigger areas, and an additional common space within the house (complete with seating that was auctioned from the Pittsburgh International Airport). The cafeteria, which also has a stage, is at the center of the first floor and provides an expansive view of the houses. The district’s high school is connected to the middle school by a skybridge, which is located near the library, art rooms, maker space, and tech shop. All of these features are, honestly, pretty cool. But without its students, faculty, and staff, it’s just a building.

Add in the occupants and it becomes a community that prioritizes relationships, collaboration, and team-work with a space that supports the work. Chartiers Valley had a solid idea about what values it wanted to highlight in developing this design, and the community worked to make sure that their space fostered them. For example, teachers’ desks are in a shared office within their house, which promotes talking about successes and challenges. Because they aren’t siloed in their own teaching spaces, it’s provided an opportunity to talk through dilemmas that they may have previously tried to squelch (while Floro didn’t share any specific details about these conversations, having worked in close, collaborative quarters, I can imagine issues of noise or messiness of space could fit this bill). Houses run regular House Meetings, which give them an opportunity to reflect on what’s working and problem solve what isn’t. One house was able to look at referral data and notice that the disciplinary problems kids were having weren’t in the space of the house; rather, they took place in hallways and spaces where art and technology are taught. This allowed that community to talk about why that was and what everyone needed to do in order to change it. Floro also shared that there’s an increasing sense that all of the students are the responsibility of all teachers. In a really practical way, this means that teachers aren’t turning a blind eye to something just because they don’t know the student(s) involved. Instead, teachers feel more responsibility to lean into those moments and help students. The house structure isn’t new to Chartiers Valley, and the idea of schools within schools isn’t new to education, but designing a space that maximizes meaningful interactions will likely allow this community to continue building itself up and increase its cohesion. It’s true that you don’t need a building to look a certain way in order to build a strong and vibrant community or emphasize collaboration among students or teachers, but the more that schools can have the structural support to do these things well, the more likely it is that they will continue to happen. It can be a real challenge to get down the hall to talk about a student whose having a rough time, and it’s not because teachers mismanage their time. It’s usually because there are projects to assess, lessons to plan, other teachers who have quick questions, and students you need to check in with. The more the physical space you occupy sets you up for success, the more successful you can be. The kinds of space that we ask students to spend over 16,000 hours of their lives isn’t a trivial matter, especially when we ask them to be creative, take risks, and build empathy. Chartiers Valley has done wonderful work in creating a school building to foster their essential values; I’m excited to see the progress they make in the years to come. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ NOTE: I’d be remiss not to bring up that space is inherently tied to school funding, and any school’s ability to renovate their building or build a new structure is contingent on a rather nuanced process of securing the financing to do so. We have a lot of thoughts about that, and we’re putting together a series of blog posts dedicated to schooling and money. We’ll let you know when it’s ready! Images by Sara Bailey


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