Great Advice on School Design from 3 Principals Who Did It

If you’re lucky enough to be opening a brand-new school building or renovating an older one, you know that the school[…]Continue Reading

If you’re lucky enough to be opening a brand-new school building or renovating an older one, you know that the school design process can be overwhelming.

As an administrator, you aren’t an expert in developing detailed architectural plans or physically constructing a building. But you are an expert in educating students. Since your students’ interests are at the center of everything you do, by sharing your vision with the designers of your new space and being actively engaged in the many layers of decisions, you can be a major player in the creation of a positive learning environment.

The following article first appeared in The School Leader’s Guide to Planning for a Positive Learning Environment, sponsored by Quill. Download the full guide here.

Here’s a snapshot of three school transformations plus advice from principals about advocating for kids in the process.

Wyncote Elementary School, Wyncote, Pennsylvania

During the four years it took to plan, demolish and rebuild Wyncote Elementary School in Pennsylvania, Crystal Clark, the school’s principal, said she was thoughtful about school design decisions—from layout and technology to furniture and decor—to make sure everyone was considering what was best for the students. In the fall of 2015, Wyncote opened a new 80,000-square-foot building, replacing the old structure, which was built in 1940 and in need of updates. “We wanted a space to make us competitive in the 21st century, with all the technology and curriculum needs,” said Clark. “We didn’t have room in the infrastructure for the things we needed to do and to be fully inclusive of students with varying needs.”

The new school features an elevator and lift for students with physical disabilities. Chalkboards are gone and now every room has smart technology and an interactive display unit.


Even though some people pushed for a three-story building to preserve more outside green space, Clark felt safety was paramount and quick evacuation of young children would be easier in a two-story school. There are now four stairwells in the two-level building instead of one, and the upper grades are upstairs while the lower grades are on the first floor.

Clark mentioned to the architects that she liked the look of a house with columns across the street from the school. They took that idea and incorporated columns inside the building to set apart areas for small-team learning communities by grade in the new building.

When Clark was presented with swatches of gray and burgundy as design colors, she suggested blue and gold to match the colors of the high school and build community spirit.

To furnish the classrooms, Clark invited teachers and staff to be part of a furniture committee that combed through catalogs and visited furniture warehouses. Instead of four-legged desks and chairs, the school went with ergonomically designed l-shaped furniture that was more comfortable and flexible. No more need for tennis balls on the bottom of chair legs to keep the noise down in the classrooms.

Excitement grew through the process as Clark shared photos with the community at various stages of construction. While the old building had its charm, it was also dark and drab, said Clark. Now, everyone is priding in the new school design. “When you walk in, it’s such a grand kind of feeling. I think [students] are really getting themselves ready to learn.”

Kaiser Elementary School, Denver, Colorado

Built in 1973, Kaiser Elementary was an Open Concept School—a popular model at that time. In 2012, Denver voters passed a bond to fund renovations including plans to enclose classrooms and build real walls at Kaiser. Principal Elinor Roller attended practically every planning meeting beginning in the fall of 2014 and leading up to the 10-week renovation that took place last summer.  “We had a whole community process where we talked about our priorities for the building—the musts, the ‘like to haves’ and what would be fun if we could afford it,” said Roller, who has been the school’s leader for eight years.

While the open layout led to greater collaboration, which teachers loved, new school design also created issues with acoustics that needed to be fixed. The walls have helped contain the noise and allow kids to work in groups and move around without disturbing other classes, she said.

As the architects designed the new space, Roller pushed for interior doors between the same-grade-level classrooms so there could continue to be back-and-forth. She also envisioned secured common learning spaces outside of classrooms where small groups can gather.

Lighting enhances learning, but the new configuration at Kaiser meant there weren’t many windows in the classrooms. The answer, said Roller: Install solar cubes in the roof to give natural, defused light.

Coat racks were moved from the hallway to inside the classroom so students could grab materials from their backpacks without having to leave the supervision of the teacher.

The contractors were about to replace the cabinets with an updated version of the original ones from the ‘70s, but Roller noted there was no longer need for so many drawers for paper. “We don’t teach that way anymore and store paper,” Roller told them. New casework was ordered, but with different layouts to accommodate the tools that teachers are more apt to use. With little effort, the school increased its storage by 50 percent, she said.

To furnish the classroom, Roller worked with teachers’ preferences to purchase a combination of chairs, desks and tables. To add some color—as well as a “fun and funky” touch to the common areas—the school bought bright vinyl beanbag chairs.

In the original building, teachers could post students’ work easily on the movable walls. In the newly renovated building, Roller ordered yards of tack strip to install in the hallways and classrooms for displays.

As designers referred to the size of rooms, Roller said it was important for her to physically measure the layout to know how the space would work. That led her to realize she wanted to deviate from the first set of plans proposed: She wanted fewer, larger classrooms rather than more numerous smaller ones. Her advice to fellow administrators: “Don’t be intimidated. We aren’t trained in construction, but we know about kids and learning.”

Faubion Elementary School, Portland, Oregon

Construction is just beginning at a new school building that will serve the broad needs of students, from babies through doctorate level. Portland Public Schools in Oregon is partnering with Concordia University to construct a new facility for Faubion Elementary School, located just steps from the campus of the private university. With $33 million from the district and $15 million pledged from Concordia, the public-private collaboration is underway with a target date for the new facility to open in 2017.

When principal LaShawn Lee first started at Faubion eight years ago, she saw potential in inviting the graduate students from Concordia to work in her classrooms. The school is among the poorest in the district, with about 80 percent of its students living in poverty, 20 percent homeless and 20 percent who are English-language learners. After bringing in college students to be reading buddies, play games with children at recess and student-teach in the classrooms, the school began to flourish. Enrichment and arts programs were added. Enrollment grew from 200 to 530 in four years.

Principal Lee envisioned a school that was the “heartbeat of the community,” with activities and services to benefit the whole child and their families—and in this case including higher education. Leveraging their resources together, the district and college will share space in the new facility, generally with kids attending during the day and doctorate education students entering after 5 p.m., since many of them are professional educators during the day. The school will offer wraparound services, such as a health-and-wellness center (complete with a dental chair) and food pantry.

With construction design, Lee describes how she and the parents have their “fingerprints all over the blueprints.” The new school design can accommodate 850 kids (with preschool and child care for infants as young as 6 weeks) and 340 graduate students. Rather than keeping Concordia students separate from the younger students, she pushed to have the spaces intertwined so her students could observe and envision themselves as college students.

Lee advocated for lots of light, open space, healthy ventilation and an efficient intercom system. She wants movable furniture so that students can form groups and collaborate. “The days of sitting behind a desk are a thing of the past,” said Lee, who hopes the school will have standing and adjustable desks.

Parents suggested a private shower be located near the nurse’s office to serve the homeless students. At the mini–grocery store, where some families buy food and others obtain it with assistance, the community asked for one door rather than two so it wouldn’t be obvious who was getting free groceries.

The community also asked for one main school door for everyone to enter rather than two. Those seemingly little things help unite the school and foster a sense of dignity among the diverse population, said Lee. “You have to make sure your voice is heard.”