Building More Than Buildings:
How the 21st Century Building Project can improve our learning, collaboration, and the schools we build.
When Andre Alonso announced the funding of the 21st Century School Building project in Baltimore City, he restated a quote from Winston Churchill:
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
It is a reminder of the importance of this shaping, and of our opportunity to build learning and community through the design process. If our buildings are to transform our education and our communities, we must first transform how we shape them.
Meaningful involvement of teachers, students, community members and experts in the design of these buildings can inform the architects and city planners of the needs, problems and hopes for the school and community. In turn, these experts can share their insights on how to create better functioning buildings, improve neighborhood design, and access job opportunities. This collaborative learning enables us to build not just a better school building, but also a better school culture and more successful students and communities.
Charrette or Charade?
The size and speed of the school construction project is daunting. It is easier to look across a nearly empty room and check the box for community involvement and move on. But if we are to build learning and gain the wisdom and support of our communities, we need to fill these rooms and strengthen relationships still aching from school closings. Poor communication, and short, disjointed public engagement is failing to create the sustained involvement and trust necessary for successful collaboration. Even staff and teachers have been left without valid information on the status of their school construction projects.
Failure to integrate the design process into school curriculum and after school programs robs our students of a golden opportunity to learn and to shape their future.
Shaping our learning (we don’t have to wait to collaborate).
Building and neighborhood design processes are perfectly suited for collaborative STEM and experiential learning—the learning these new schools are supposed to foster. Engaging students, faculty and community members in this learning can prepare them to participate in the design process while strengthening their skills in math, science, engineering, health, and economics.
Starting with their existing school, students can collect data on the temperatures, humidity, air quality, lighting, acoustics, and asthma triggers. They can study how to improve bus service, reduce energy use and storm water runoff at their school. This information can help inform the school design process and prepare students to examine larger questions including:
• What are the biggest problems in the community and how can our school help solve them?
• How can our school foster the health and learning of our students and community?
• How can our school help students and their families obtain economic and educational opportunities?
Studying these issues with planning experts and community members would bring more wisdom to the design processes and demonstrate how we can learn and collaborate to solve real problems. This is the educational and cultural transformation that Baltimore needs. If we are to build our promises, we need to start now with pilot programs and partners.