Charter designs require creativity: Local architect Axis building school niche

September 3, 2007

Much of what defines a charter school is in sharp contrast with the traditional model found in public school districts.

And the differences start with the structure itself. Charter schools, due to budget restraints, typically involve renovations of a buildings once used for entirely different purposes.

From there, the architecture and interior design must create a look and functionality educators say enhances learning and instills in students a sense of ownership and pride in their eventual alma mater.

"No one ever said learning had to occur in a chair," said Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill Education Initiatives Inc., which opened a charter school in 2004.

And when the group, a not-for-profit formed by Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana Inc., began thinking about the school's layout, it hired locally based Axis Architecture + Interiors, which has found a niche in designing charter schools, which are gaining popularity in Indiana and elsewhere.

Axis has designed part or all of five of the 16 charter schools that have opened in Indianapolis, starting with the Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence, which opened in 2003.

Light and open

Lots of glass, natural light and open spaces greet students entering Goodwill Industries' charter school, Indianapolis Metropolitan High School near White River and Michigan Street. An expansion of the school, also designed by Axis, was completed in August.

Along with a light, open feel, many of the design decisions were made after considering what students would want, said Nikki Sutton, an interior designer with Axis.

"We didn't want the design to reflect the faculty, but rather the mindset of the students," said Sutton, explaining she tried to imagine what she would want to be surrounded by if she were attending high school today.

To that end, the interior reflects cuttingedge features for a school, such as geometric patterns in the carpeting and on the walls, which are angled and curved throughout. The color scheme is a youthful blend of blues and pale green.

Several large, open common areas are flexible in their use as staging grounds for group activities. Bubble skylights add to the open, airy sense, which may correlate to open dialogue if several vocal groups of students and their teachers were any indication.

Studies have shown that natural light can increase a student's ability to learn, Bess explained.

Classrooms at charter schools typically are much smaller than in traditional schools. At Indianapolis Met, as it's called, each teacher has only 16 students.

A personalized approach to teaching and learning tailors lessons to specific areas of interests for students and links to the business world through year-long internships. Teacher and students usually remain in the same room all day; no bells signal a passing period.

Adaptable classrooms

The furniture at Indianapolis Met was selected with the students in mind, Sutton said. Far from the all-in-one wooden desks with angled tops and attached seats, the furniture Axis selected is trendy, lightweight and movable.

Black durable tables, many of which are large enough to accommodate several students, are on wheels so classrooms can be rearranged easily and quickly. Like the matching black chairs, tables are light enough for students to do the rearranging.

"When students move around, they learn better," Bess said. "These students have not been successful in their old type of school and instructional model. We have to change things for them."

Bess expects 90 percent of Indianapolis Met's students will graduate, thanks in part to the student-centric design and the school's model of teaching.

The school's first senior class of 70 students starts this year. There are 350 students in all and that number will grow to 512, the maximum in order to maintain the ratio of one teacher for every 16 students.

Axis principal Drew White said the design for the $2 million Indianapolis Met project came about after his firm studied the school's program and considered the original structure's size and layout.

"We basically had a clean slate to work with," White said. "We were able to push the envelope more."

Rarely are charter schools built from the ground up; funding must come from the private sector, not state taxes. So, often they're created from former warehouse space, as with Indianapolis Met.

The nearly 30,000-square-foot space the school occupies had previously been used by Goodwill for its outsourcing services to companies assisting with production and assembly needs. Goodwill's corporate offices are still in the building.

So, unlike designing schools for the traditional education sector, charter school projects do not come with a stack of predetermined specifications that cover everything from faucets in the bathrooms to ceiling heights.

But, while there are no cookie-cutter designs or state-imposed requirements for charter schools, at least one aspect of school design is important to all educational facilities, said Marty Develan, former director of the Ball State University Office of Charter Schools, which grants charters and then oversees their operations.

"There's an unfortunate need to design these buildings to keep bad people out more than the good ones in," explained Develan, who now helps run a family business that provides property and casualty insurance to charter schools. "The entrance needs to present a welcoming environment, but also be safe enough to keep bad people out. Sounds simple enough, but it's a tough exercise."

White agreed that balancing security and openness can be tricky. At the Indianapolis Met, which is housed with Goodwill Industries, the facility has to be accessible to students, plus Goodwill employees and clients.

Axis' design solution was to use a large glass vestibule at a common connecting point in the building, allowing for better visibility.

The design works, according to Bess.

"Students here think it looks cool, not like an institution," he said. "[And] parents think it looks safe."

Finding patterns

A year-long student project at Ball State University is looking to identify patterns and general design requirements for charter schools.

Pamela Harwood, associate professor of architecture and director of the university's master of architecture program, and 10 students will examine existing charter schools in the state to see how they worked around design issues.

Through the project, called Developing a Pattern Language Manual for the Design and Planning of Charter Schools, students will consider ways school designers can solve particular issues. In the end, future charter schools will have options for overcoming design issues, Harwood said.

"The range of what we'll look at will vary considerably because each charter school has its own mission," Harwood said. "We'll hopefully identify if a particular type of building is more suited to a charter school than others and how to rework outdated design features of fixed and static classrooms when a former traditional school is renovated," she said.

So while each school will continue to look different and most will differ dramatically from traditional schools, experts say it's that first impression-inside and out-that charter schools need to focus on, in addition to being creative with space and cost issues.

The need to be creative with funding and design ultimately leads to successful schools, said Corrie Heneghan, chief operating officer for The Mind Trust, a local not-for-profit that works to improve education. Heneghan also was assistant director for Indianapolis charter schools from 2003 to 2006.

"The Met schools are a great example of the flexibility charter schools have," Heneghan said. "Much has to do with the physical structure and creating an environment to foster learning to specifically the type of learning at that particular school and its program. Students know that facility was renovated just for them and that instills a lot of pride. They know it's a privilege that they get to use that space. It's important for them to feel invested in their school."

The most important byproduct of the individualized design is that it seems to make students want to learn.

"It's just another way to make sure the kids are engaged in their education," Heneghan said.
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