Prakash Nair

Feature Forum
Includes a conversation between Bruce Jilk and Prakash Nair

Section 1
Are They
Case Study 1
  Harbor City

Section 2
My Size
Case Study 2

Section 3
Summary of
  New Concepts
Case Study 3
  Peele Campus

C/S Group
The global innovator in architectural specialty 



But Are They Learning?
School Buildings - The Important Unasked Questions
Prakash Nair, RA, REFP

This publication is based on a paper presented at the International Workshop on Educational Infrastructure, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, February 2002. The workshop was sponsored by OECD's Programme on Educational Building (PEB) in Paris, France, the Mexican Ministry of Education, and the Administrative Board of the Federal School Construction Programme (CAPFCE), Mexico. The paper was adapted for publication as a Commentary in the April 3, 2002 issue of  Education Week.

Safe, Clean and Comfortable, But Are They Learning?
       The United States spends over $20 billion annually to build and renovate schools. Paul Abramson, writing for School Planning and Management reports that, "More money was spent on school construction in the year 2000 ($21 billion) than in any previous 12-month period" (Abramson, 2001). This number is expected to grow steadily over the next several years. How much of the money will be spent to improve learning outcomes is anybody's guess. 
       It is safe to say that most people agree with the proposition: School buildings have an impact on student learning. However, few people, especially politicians and school construction officials, have stopped to ponder why this is so. Much of the public discussion about the need for more construction money centers around the consensus that children need "a safe, clean and comfortable environment" to learn. Beyond that, you will be hard pressed to find any politician saying what exactly it is about new school buildings that improves student learning.

"School buildings have been and continue to be places to warehouse children. New schools just do it in more comfortable settings."

Does Sameness Equal Equity?
       The truth of the matter is that school buildings have been and continue to be places to warehouse children. New schools just do it in more comfortable settings. If you look at the way most government agencies handle the "business" of school design and construction, you will see how the system is designed to systematically weed out any potential for a completely creative solution. A number of arguments are proposed for the reason why almost all new schools that are built look so much like each other, but none is sillier than the one about equity. I have personally heard the superintendent of a school system argue against an innovative school because he was afraid it would make his other schools look bad. Rather than use the new school as an opportunity to pilot a new way of teaching and learning, this superintendent preferred to pretend that the world had not changed.
        Arguments about equity are also concerned with not spending more money in one location over another. Is it equitable to treat all people and all communities as if they were the same? True equity will focus on the idea of equalizing opportunities for every child to succeed. That might mean spending more effort or money in some locations and offering a variety of solutions tailored to the particular characteristics of each client community and, therein, for each child. 

Is Misguided Nostalgia a Good Predictor for Future Success? 
      The school building apparatus is but one piece in the larger educational machinery of the United States about which one generalization is safe to make:

The quest for learning is universal but the industrial model is prevalent. The acquisition of information and factoids, divorced from meaningful learning, is the norm. Surprisingly, despite its dismal record of failure and some powerful forces pulling education in a new direction, this traditional model of education is not only alive and well, but is enjoying a new resurgence (Kohn, 1999). There are many reasons why this is so, but one powerful reason is the comfort level that old, familiar schools evoke in the hearts and minds of those making decisions about the future of education. "If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for my children" seems to be the prevailing mantra. As they rely on this misguided nostalgia, the problem is not that communities give a wrong answer to the question, "what is learning?" - but that they rarely ask the question!

But Will It Fly? 
       Some exemplary schools have been created by virtue of a particular leader's single-minded devotion to getting results aided by a band of like-minded reformists (Meier, 1995). After Deborah Meier overcame the impossibly difficult challenge of getting students to perform beyond their socio-economic predictors in Harlem with her Central Park East schools, others have followed with similar success stories. One such story is told by Eliot Levine about how the Met School in Rhode Island is defying all the odds and redefining the way schools work (Levine, 2002). George Wood, Principal of Federal Hocking High in Ohio talks about changing "institutions to communities" and did just that with his dramatic turnaround of a poor and struggling rural school (Wood, 1999). 
        Chris Hazelton, a teacher in Duluth, Minnesota, is taking this thinking a step further by having the school facility itself represent his school’s philosophy.  Working with several inspired colleagues and architect Randall Fielding, Hazelton is launching the New Harbor City International Charter School in an 1860 industrial building in downtown Duluth.  However, any resemblance to a factory ends there.  The Duluth plan is truly a new paradigm learning environment in every sense of the term.  If this level of innovative thinking continues in the area of professional staffing and curriculum development, there is no question that Harbor City’s flexible, personalized environment will become an important part of this school’s success.
       What is remarkable about Harbor City and so many other innovative schools is that they cost no more than traditional schools.  Harbor City’s innovative plan calls for about 100/SF per student whereas the recommended national average is about 150 SF/student for high schools.  There is no question that the architect and school proponents could have done even more than they already have with a little more space but this example shows why new paradigm schools do not have to be larger nor cost more than traditional schools.  Another lesson this school teaches is that a modern school can be created in almost any setting – including an old factory!  Thus, it puts to rest the myth that urban areas have no good sites left for schools  – an argument that is used to justify placing them in the most marginal sections of town.  

Variable sized
Cave space
Spaces with
  access to food
  and beverage
Studios and
Get away
  spaces, niches
Display spaces
Access to

Harbor City International - A New Paradigm School

Randall Fielding, AIA, Design Architect and Planner
Scalzo Architects, Associate Architect                              Program & Details


" Every principal of a school that broke the mould will tell you he or she had to fight the "system" to get there."








" the real clients of schools - those who use it - are almost always the most disenfranchised"


         These successes notwithstanding, the system of education in this country is simply not set up to nurture such tailored solutions. Every principal of a school that broke the mould will tell you he or she had to fight the "system" to get there. But what is the system? In almost every case, it is broken up into a pre-defined series of fields and compartments. There are groups responsible for transportation, food and nutrition, building construction and maintenance, curriculum, security, administration, technology, community relations, press, special education, early childhood programs and on and on. Maybe there was a distant time when these groups all operated under one set of guiding principles oriented toward improving student learning but today, they operate more or less as disparate entities.
        Individual practitioners in a given field or compartment have little say outside their specific sphere of expertise. In other words, the system operates like a conglomeration of specialists, with no general practitioner in charge of the ultimate goal - learning. In this scheme of things, it is not surprising that the facilities people reside in a place of their own with clearly established boundaries that others may not cross. By the same token, facilities people seem uninterested in challenging the standards handed to them by so-called specialists in the various other disciplines. 
        To recognize the gravity of these problems in the world of school planning and construction, imagine the design of a Boeing 747 with hundreds of thousands of parts but without someone visualizing the end product. Imagine having to design these parts in isolation with no clear idea how they fit within the overall design for the plane. Now imagine the plane being designed without regard to its most important purpose, to fly, and its most important clients, its passengers. That, indeed, is how learning environments are generally created in the USA and throughout the world. Schools' most important purpose - learning - and their most important clients - children and the local community - are largely disregarded in the process of their creation. 
       In one New York City Community, the Board of Education voted to go ahead and build a school at a site that over 90% of the local population opposed. This, despite the fact that the school was proposed to be located was on a major boulevard where 72 pedestrians had been killed in recent years.1 Fortunately, that project was put on hold after local residents mobilized political support against its siting but many other communities have not been so lucky. If we don't care about the local community and their children, who exactly are we building these schools for and what is their purpose? We see that platitudes to the contrary notwithstanding, the real clients of schools - those who use it - are almost always the most disenfranchised in their development. 
       By not having to ask the "but will they learn" question, leadership can exist without vision and the bureaucrats can become fixated on the system - not on the needs of individual learners. It is not that we do not know how to solve these problems. For example, Linda Darling Hammond sets forth a blueprint for schools that work with her passionate arguments for creating a learner-centered vision of education (Darling-Hammond, 1997). However, even as educators like Darling Hammond are rallying the troops to change the face of American schooling, the establishment as a whole seems intent on perpetuating the industrial model. By some measures, real reform efforts have touched only one in 100 schools (Kohn, 1999).

1 92% of Community Board 2 in Queens, New York City voted against the Board of Education's plan to locate a school in the predominantly industrial area of Long Island City on a street dubbed by the NY Daily News as "The Boulevard of Death". | April 2002 | next >