CORVALLIS - The School for Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minn., is located on the grounds of the Minnesota Zoological Gardens - a convenient partnership that not only provides high school students with fascinating learning opportunities, it saves money on heating and other infrastructure costs.
High Tech High in San Diego, Calif., is a refurbished military base with no classrooms, per se, but it is filled with student learning work stations, studios, project rooms, seminar spaces and laboratories that cater to a strong science and engineering education for its students.
As U.S. high schools come under more and more scrutiny for their failure to engage students, a growing number of educational leaders are looking at progressive designs for schools that put the focus on student learning and community partnerships, according to George H. Copa, a professor of in the School of Education at Oregon State University.
Copa is the director of a program called New Designs for Learning that grew out of a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education. He also recently advised the Meyer Memorial Trust of Oregon, which in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle, just announced a $25 million small schools initiative in Oregon to create models of small high schools as well as large high schools subdivided into smaller organizational units.
The OSU-based New Designs for Learning program has been working with educators in the U.S. and other countries - particularly at the high school and community college levels - in taking a fresh look at 21st-century learning expectations, processes and environments.
"Many schools today are simply not effective for all students, and not economically sustainable over the long haul," Copa said.
Numerous older high schools have been designed in what Copa calls teacher-centered or adult-centered ways, often in isolation from the larger community. A major corridor runs down the middle of the school with clusters of classrooms down each side. The schools often are located away from the center of communities and surrounded by parking lots and playing fields.
The traditional style features a series of classrooms, where teachers are the center of attention and direct communication from the front of the room to rows of students in desks or at rectangular tables.
That, Copa says, is "old school."
"These kinds of space arrangements support an emphasis on the teacher, not the students," he pointed out. "By perpetuating that feeling, schools run the risk of operating like large, graduate-producing assembly lines."
A growing number of disenchanted high school students agree. And they show their lack of engagement by dropping out - physically, mentally, or both. The national dropout rate is a staggering 25 percent. And it is much higher for predominantly low-income and minority students.
How can a new design engage more students in learning, and promote a mutual relationship between the school and its community?
"It can't, by itself," Copa said. "But the design is part of the equation. The first step is to better understand the needs of the community. What do wise parents want for the learning of their children? What role does the community envision for the school?
"Remember," he added, "schools are used not only for education of young adults, but are vital learning, performing, recreational and meeting places for adult learners, seniors, musicians and sports groups of all kinds. A high school is a major community building and resource."
Because of that, some innovative partnerships could take place, Copa says. Why not consider four smaller facilities - rather than a larger building - and share space with other community resources, such as business and industry, government, higher education and human services? "The first thing people say is, what about the cost?" Copa said. "But there are ways around that. What if, for example, you could locate a small school on the campus of a community college or university, another small school on the grounds of a major business, a third small school in partnership with a hospital or senior citizens center, and a fourth small school with the city government?
"There could be cost savings through the use of the existing facilities' infrastructure and staffing - not to mention the tremendous learning potential for students and the contribution of the school to community development.
"The point," Copa added, "is to think about learning in non-traditional ways. A new 'state-of-the-art' school becomes outdated quickly. Schools are more likely to provide sustainable quality learning opportunities in partnership with the community."
If creating new on-site schools and partnerships cannot be done overnight, there are options, said Copa, whose ideal education world would have no "stand-alone" schools larger than 400 students. If such change is too radical - financially or philosophically - there are other options for large schools, he says.
Reynolds High in Troutdale, Ore., divides its school by themes. The new Southridge High in Beaverton, Ore., has constructed four different "neighborhoods" within the school. And Alpha High in Gresham, Ore., is built to house only one-half of its students at any one time and uses a variety of community-based sites for teaching and learning.
The idea, Copa says, is to incorporate the advantages of small schools into a large school. Learning experiences that are personalized, hold to high learning expectations for all students, support collaboration among adults and provide extra support for learning when and how it is needed are keys to success. The dropout rate, he added, can be reversed.
"The most difficult-to-reach students are the ones who respond most dramatically to this new kind of system," Copa said.
The OSU educator knows that adopting new approaches to teaching and learning will ultimately be what makes the difference in American education. Yet it is difficult to break out of the mold when millions of high school students sit in classrooms designed for lectures.
"The design of schools is important, but ultimately the design must reflect the learning needed by students and the larger community," Copa said. "Our goal with New Designs for Learning is to help schools and communities to begin envisioning new ways of reawakening the potential of all learners, staff and community.
"We need to level the 'playing field' for all learners - with multiple ways to learn what is important," he added. "And we need to blur the borders of school and community, insuring that learning is sustainable in vibrancy and responsiveness."
George Copa, 541-737-8201
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.