By Prakash Nair
A version of this article was published in Education Week on February 4, 2004
This past September, an obscure, blue-collar community in one of Australia’s most remote regions was recognized for an unlikely achievement: producing the best planned, designed, and technologically advanced school in the world. The school? Reece Community High School in Devenport, Tasmania. The award? The James D. MacConnell Award, known as the highest honor for school planning and design and bestowed on one project each year by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International.
That the award-winning school was developed for a fraction of the cost spent by many of its American competitors vying for the MacConnell prize, that it took less time to create than most schools of its size andcomplexity, and that it was born under tragic circumstances make this a story worth telling. The real story, however, is contained in the lessons that Reece can teach us here in America. These are important lessons not only because we stand on the threshold of an unprecedented wave of school constructionspending that will exceed annual expenditures of $30 billion for many years to come, but also because the school buildings we create and renovate today will have a direct impact on learning for millions of students over thenext 50 years.
The arsonist’s fire that destroyed Reece High School on December 5th 2000 rages on at 3:00 am
The Reece story began in December 2000, when an arsonist’s blaze completely destroyed the old school, housed in nondescript, traditional buildings. Unremarkable as the buildings themselves were, there was much community and personal history tied up in them that would be irreplaceable. One student talked about losing an apron from her sewing class whose pocket she had redone nine times. Another, a prefect, lamented the loss of the honor boards recognizing students from across the years. So it was no surprise that when Tasmanian Education Minister Paula Wreidt promised to rebuild Reece, the first reaction was to simply restore the buildings that were lost.
But Tasmania had not built a high school for many years, and the education department saw this as an opportunity to create something different: a state-of-the-art facility. It was not an enthusiasm uniformly shared. There was concern that doing something radically different at Reece would create an inequitable situation for the other schools. And the local community, including parents, teachers, and students, was itself in favor of simply rebuilding the destroyed buildings. The crowding of 500-plus students from Reece into Devenport High, the town’s only other high school, added to the sense of urgency and militated against an innovative approach that might delay reconstruction efforts.
In the aftermath of the fire
It was in the context of this impasse that Tasmanian education officials approached me. My role, I would learn, was not only to introduce Tasmania to the latest trends in school facilities planning, but also to help create what management guru Peter Senge has described as a “shared vision” for the community’s future. But how to get people to the table with a common agenda? The answer was not as difficult as one might imagine.
In our initial meetings, we had representation from teachers, students, parents, local community residents, business owners, and education department officials. We started the first meeting with a simple question: “Why do we send our children to school?” I suggested to the audience that millions of parents across the globe never ask or get asked this question, and I told them to see this as a special opportunity to think deeply about the school they wanted. For almost two minutes, no one volunteered an answer. Then one student spoke up. She said, “I don’t know why my parents send me to school, but I go so that I can meet my friends.” And so we wrote down that answer, Meet friends = to create socialization skills. A floodgate of answers had been opened, and we could not write fast enough after that.
This was a community devastated by many economic downturns and suffering an extremely high unemployment rate. So recommendations that schooling be relevant and rigorous, and that it should be based on delivering real, usable skills that students could take directly into the workplace or refine at college were not surprising. We heard suggestions that the rebuilt Reece should be reconfigured as a true “community school.” Instead of the fortress that most high schools have become, the desire for Reece was that it be a permeable organization that encouraged student activities in the community while at the same time serving as an open, welcoming place for parents and community residents.
A consensus began to emerge that this kind of learning could not be properly accomplished under the old Reece model, with students occupying classrooms for significant periods of the day attending a series of lectures. We talked about project-based learning as a way out of this dilemma. But to have project-based learning, a lot of things needed to change. Multidisciplinary projects would have to be created, which meant the dismantling of the 45-minute period in favor of block scheduling. Teachers would have to collaborate, creating meaningful projects that complied with state standards, but also were engaging and exciting for students. But how could teachers do all this without training? So training was added to our list. Project-based learning also meant “hands on” activities. Where would students build a model bridge, or sew an Australian flag, or create a large poster? A place got added to the list.
The Reece educational agenda:
Developing socially responsible, globally-minded human beings.
(see chart below)
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July 16th, 2006