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Designing a school for next-century learning

By W. Tyler Whitehead, AIA, NCARB
architect, Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
May 25th, 2018

Sartell High School will feature cutting-edge Learning Labs, makerspaces, and more to empower students and spark creativity

Sartell-St. Stephen Independent School District, located in central Minnesota, is one of many school districts across the country that recognized a need to dramatically evolve traditional classrooms to create a variety of specialized and flexible learning environments to meet the needs of next-century learners.

Cuningham Group Architecture, in collaboration with engineering and architecture firm IIW-Minnesota, is designing a new 1,350-student high school that is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.

Early in the design process, the district’s administration, staff, and community members determined that there was a need to create innovative and collaborative spaces to best foster next-century learning. Reimagining how all learning spaces—from traditional classrooms to the Media Center—function was a pivotal design direction for the new school. All spaces were designed with flexibility and adaptability in mind so that over time, as technology evolves, students are continually exposed to the most relevant technology.

The design and programming of the school came out of a comprehensive community-engagement process. Cuningham Group worked with a planning committee that consisted of more than 70 members representing all major stakeholder groups in a series of workshops where they shared their vision, standards, criteria and priorities for the Sartell-St. Stephen School District’s facilities over the next 10 to 15 years.

It starts with the media center
Media centers have historically served as a centrally located hub of learning and activity, but today’s media specialists, school leaders, and designers are recognizing that as technology continues to evolve, designs need to incorporate flexible learning environments and offer skill-based learning opportunities that empower students.

“For a long time, libraries were the centers of knowledge and computer labs were largely windowless spaces that weren’t connected to the rest of the school,” says Cuningham Group Principal Judy Hoskens. “Our goal is to break out of that traditional mold and create spaces that are accessible and designed to meet a changing world.”

No more chairs and desks in rows
The new Sartell High School design features Learning Neighborhoods that are connected by “bridges” to more specialized programs. “From early on, staff and students wanted to create vibrant and engaging places to collaborate and create,” says Brenda Steve, principal of Sartell High School. “Cuningham Group guided our process to take this blueprint of an idea to the construction of Learning Neighborhoods and Learning Labs.”

By bridging general learning to advanced opportunities, the flow of the learning progression is visible and interactive, allowing students to collaborate, share, and present. The design is intended to celebrate learning by creating environments that are open and connected.

The staff and students provided an amazing amount of creative, thoughtful, and forward-thinking input into how the media and classroom spaces should be designed. As a result, the school will have varied and branded spaces for student learning. Instead of having one central media center, they suggested three technology-focused Learning Labs. Flexible learning spaces are nestled within the Learning Neighborhoods, Student Commons, and Learning Labs. There are also quiet environments for students to work on projects or pull a book off of one of the many reading collections dispersed throughout the school.

Sartell High School will have three specialized Learning Labs located between each Learning Neighborhood and dispersed throughout the school. The Labs, which will be used by students taking Career Technology Education (CTE) or traditional courses, are specialized technology centers for students and teachers. They will feature various hardware and software, including cloud resources (computer programming, graphic design, and cartography), visual resources (video production and recording studios), and design resources (prototyping, laser cutters, 3D printers, robotics).

“The Learning Labs are encased in glass, providing a literal window into learning. It is an exciting opportunity to allow all students to showcase their work with the entire school,” says Kay Nelson, assistant superintendent. “They provide students with the tools to create and generate ideas and encourage them to be actively engaged in the design of their own learning.”

About the Author:

Tyler Whitehead is a registered architect and a member of Cuningham Group’s education studio. As a creative professional, he has a unique ability to translate programmatic needs into architectural reality. His approach promotes design integrity and quality control throughout the duration of a project. He is dedicated to working closely with clients so they are invested in all aspects of the design process, promoting the delivery of thoughtful solutions that are in line with the client’s vision.

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