New school design to encourage community teaching environment

(Courtesy CCSD#1) Front elevation of the proposed Sundance Elementary building.
(Courtesy CCSD#1) Front elevation of the proposed Sundance Elementary building.

By Sarah Pridgeon

If plans follow their current track, a communal style of teaching will be introduced at Sundance Elementary once the new school building is complete. At the 10 percent review on Friday, CCSD revealed designs for a bigger school with more spacious individual classrooms, a competition-sized gym and a dining hall fit for the whole campus.

Unlike traditionally styled schools, with classrooms lined side by side along a corridor, the plans give each class its own space, but in a “pod” style layout that creates a learning community.

In one corner of the new school, the youngest students will gather in a circle of classrooms. Teachers will be able to pop their heads around one another’s doors to share ideas and work together, while smaller groups can break out to pursue their own, tailored activities.

At the other end of the building, older students will enjoy their own pod of classrooms while, nestled between the two, facilities such as the library and art room will await the students’ attention.

The school district settled on the idea of a professional learning community in December, said Trustee Ken Rathbun, according to teacher input at the one-on-one charette meetings. The district then gave Sandstrom Associates Architecture the go-ahead to design the school accordingly.

“I’m confident that you guys have done a good job of putting all the comments from the charettes together,” Rathbun told the architects on Friday.

“My feeling is that it gives us some flexibility on how we teach now and how future teachers and administrators will teach, as opposed to…going back to the old style of classrooms along the side of hallways.”

The new school will have a capacity of 272 students, which will house the 209 current students with room for future growth. Each classroom will be 800 square foot in size, matching the state minimums.

“We met with every single teacher…to really ratchet down the optimum learning configuration. They wanted the breakout rooms, they wanted the open areas outside the classrooms for collaboration so they could bring small groups out,” said Stephen Sandstrom, Principal Architect.

“We did take up a little of what could have been square footage in the classrooms and put it into the breakout rooms and collaboration space in each of those pods.”

Some concern was expressed that the classroom sizes may be too small. Classrooms are the “essence of the school,” said Trustee Keith Haiar, and should be designed to ensure flexibility.

“I don’t want to run into the same situation we’re in in Moorcroft: before the school is even built, the principal is saying that she’s running out of classrooms,” he explained.

“It’s important that we know going forward that the school will be flexible to meet our needs.”

Removing the common areas would only give an extra nine to ten inches to each classroom, said Curtis Livingston, Project Manager. It would also “drastically change” the configuration of the plans.

“We’d be taking out the donut hole in the center. What then happens is that you go back to a more linear approach…because we can’t just take out the middle and leave the configuration and relationships the same,” he said.

“It becomes a very different feel: you’re not grouped together, you’re strung out along longer hallways.”

Concern was also expressed that the configuration will remove the “team teaching” approach that the teachers currently work with. This, in turn, could make it difficult to use the breakout rooms, as one teacher cannot supervise two groups of students at once.

Trustee Josie Pearson questioned whether the teachers do want to move away from team teaching to their own, individual rooms and if the breakout space would be better added to the classrooms.

“The design doesn’t function because you’re not going to have that team teaching setup that you have now…Not one of those teachers is going to be able to send a group of kids anywhere without them being supervised,” she said, questioning whether there are enough para-professionals to oversee breakout groups.

“I think the teachers would rather have more room in their classrooms than in those hallways and pullout spaces. I’ve talked with a lot of those teachers…they would not send students out there without their being supervised so, in order to be able to really use that space, are we as a board going to hire more paras?”

According to Principal Brian Hartwig, however, removing team teaching has never been brought up as a goal and the pod-style plans are the result of listening to every individual voice among the staff.

“This concept is not taking away team teaching at all – it’s taking away where two teachers are in the classroom at the same time, but it’s not taking away where two teachers get together or even the possibility of doing cross-content and cross-grade teaching,” he said, pointing out that breakout areas are a vital addition to the school as they are used, for example, for special education.

“I’d love to see 1000-ft classrooms, but the bottom line is: where do we give and where do we take?”

The district is trying to create the most conducive learning environment for children, he added, which he does not believe is possible in the current building. Superintendent Byron Stutzman agreed, stating that two teachers in one classroom has its drawbacks.

“What I don’t want to see is one teacher teach twice the amount of kids and the other one stand there, which is what we’re playing with right now,” he explaind.

“In order for it to work and for them not be talking over the top of each other, one teacher is instructing and the other is standing there – that’s a waste of teacher time.”

Stutzman and Sandstrom both noted that the teachers had been keen on the idea of the pod configuration during the charette meetings. The architects were quick to reassure that their goal is to match the desires of the district rather than to “sell” any particular design.

“What we heard in terms of the types of functions that will be happening is that this configuration would be very desirable,” said Livingston, stating that the architectural team wants to make sure the district still has confidence in the direction it has chosen.

“We grew this conceptually with the teachers…They all were very excited about it.”

Some attendees were of the opinion that changing the plans to add extra space in the classrooms was neither necessary nor feasible.

“Truly, this classroom size is giving those teachers way more room per kid than they have ever had,” said Rathbun.  “Everybody would like to have 1000 square foot per classroom. We can have that if we’re willing to pay for it from district funds, but that’s not easy.”

Rathbun explained that the Board of Trustees had met with the issue of wanting to build a competition-sized gymnasium without losing common space or paying for it as an enhancement cost.

“I don’t think it was a secret that that was going to take some square footage from somewhere else in the building,” he said. “That square footage had to come from somewhere and I think everybody understood that there was a trade-off. We might not all like where we’re getting it from, but that’s what we had to do.”

Livingston noted that the 800-square foot classroom size is considerably larger than at present. Though teachers currently share 1200 square feet, some of this room is lost in the process of sharing rooms.

“We are at the minimums but all that plays into the square footage of the rest of the school. As you increase the size of those classrooms, what other amenities are affected?” he said.

Certain allowances for team teaching may be built into the plans in time for the 35 percent design review. Windows can be added to the classrooms, for example, although Livingston spoke against the idea of adding an adjoining door between rooms because it removes teachable space and reduces a teacher’s “effective ability to use that wall as a teaching wall.”

During the review, representatives from the district, School Facilities Department and electrical, design and mechanical teams discussed a number of refinements and changes to the current plans, which will also be considered in time for the 35 percent review.