Urban Innovation in Education: Community-centered Design
Community-centric design is a strategic approach to urban design that leverages the unique resource of community members in order to create a variety of opportunities and amenities that are impactful to their everyday lives. For schools, this type of design holds much promise for enhancing the school experience by integrating community buildings, centers, libraries, cafeterias, security, and bathrooms with each other. This approach is increasingly being applied to schools around the country, and, in particular, in D.C. where many schools—both public and private—are attempting to meet the changing demands of parents, teachers, students, and local governments by overhauling their schools.
Over the past decade, D.C. has become the poster child for urban innovation in education, and while many of the public schools currently in place are a well-intentioned attempt to address the varying needs of different groups within the D.C. public school system, many of the schools do not work well together. Community-centered design offers a solution.
However, in order to create strong, cohesive communities for students and families, there is a need for coordination between schools. This coordination is essential to better understand parents’ expectations and local community priorities, as well as the challenges that families face in and outside of school. For example, students as young as kindergarten are experiencing isolation due to the absence of a social component from the educational experience. In addition, in many of these spaces, such as in libraries, parking lots, and school gyms, there is no longer a clear delineation between what is non-educational (adult-related facilities) and what is educational (learn-time-focused areas). Despite this, D.C. school districts are using community-centered design to facilitate increased interaction among community members that ultimately benefits the entire school and community.
An Early Example
When Ben Berkowitz, a teacher and former principal at See Eye Elementary School, began to explore the integration of a gymnasium in his building, it was difficult to understand why that gym could not be used for an academic activity. There was no clear division between the two. In response, he advocated for a more connected, collaborative classroom. With the permission of the school’s parents, he constructed a physical space that allowed a free flow of communication among teachers, administrators, parents, and children. Berkowitz’s gymnasium is incorporated into the small learning area of the small school that focuses on the concepts of resilience, creativity, teamwork, independence, and the capacity to learn new skills.
Of course, it is important to note that this isn’t the only school that has been using community-centered design and a gymnasium or some combination of the components that make up a school. Maryland’s Eastern Star Elementary has used a co-located gymnasium and a small-group learning space to provide parents with a comfortable and welcoming environment to communicate with administrators and teachers. The school also offers free adult-to-adult literacy classes and teaches parenting skills.
These school’s approaches to community-centered design have demonstrated the benefits of inclusive and cohesive settings. The structure, setting, and function of a community-centered design do not have to reflect a singular school-specific philosophy, nor must it be limited to a simple two-story building. Instead, as evidenced by See Eye and Eastern Star, effective community-centered design has the ability to engage and engage residents.
Photo: Alan Ford (Creative Commons)