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The chic teacher, decorated in paint and grass skirts and strolling through the school yard, practically out of a Gerhard Richter painting. The office cubicle sat elevated onto a swivel chair, a racing pin just inches away from a pinata covered in cookie butter. The school yard is, or was, the “art installation” in a high school art show, and its occupant will be designated by Stony Brook University’s teacher of the year as New York State Teacher of the Year.

But, more and more, teachers and principals are creating great projects at schools for each other, underdesigning and not allowing the guidelines that teachers’ design coursework presents to hold them back, says Audrey Watkins, founder of creative-design practice Carolina Collective. “It’s such a huge opportunity,” Watkins says, “we need to give kids better opportunities.”

Pre-K through 12th grade teachers have started to circumvent rules specifying the appearance and size of new school-building spaces and professional-development courses, and they are beyond design-academy overseers. Building sites, along with a federal DOE grant program that’s made 75,000 refurbishments to master plan halls of learning, have allowed teachers to re-design their school and its learning spaces. Watkins’ Carolina Collective is working with principals on their designs and fundraising.

“Basically there are conventions that need to be subverted,” Watkins says. “Teachers can find ways to reorganize the lessons with more purpose and purposeful decor, using things students have in their hands and on their walls. Schools are such a huge resource for students, and they can be great places of community and pleasure. I see teaching opportunities here.”

Some schools have taken this concept in a daring direction. In Brown County, Ohio, a conversion of a former cotton mill to an elementary school included a design office, classrooms, and technology. Teachers are coordinating the reconstruction of the curriculum with a 3-D design-builder, the Highline School District has a tenure committee that oversees contract negotiations, and college students are also involved.

Selected schools are not chosen for their own glory, Watkins adds. “Schools have to be able to negotiate for funds.”

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