Wiggle seats, fab labs, drones — school doesn’t look like it used to at NKC center

This is not your grandma’s school

The North Kansas City School District’s Students in Academically Gifted Education (S.A.G.E.) building offers unique experiences for its students.
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The North Kansas City School District’s Students in Academically Gifted Education (S.A.G.E.) building offers unique experiences for its students.

The trappings of a traditional classroom are gone.

There are no walls, no desks, no chalkboards, and no textbooks in this “classroom” space at the Northland Innovation Center, the two-year-old home for North Kansas City’s gifted students.

Instead, on a recent afternoon, a group of kindergarteners and first-graders choose what they work on, and take their pick of what movable, flexible furniture they want to use that day.

Some curl up on the floor, while others gravitate to small tables with “wiggle” chairs that allow them to move in their seats. Others opt for wide leather seats, rolling chairs with mobile end tables that can be used as a desk or nooks built into the wall.

For now, a semi-circle viewing couch in front of a projector where students watch videos or critique projects — an area marked only by its bright blue walls — is unoccupied. As is the raised stage down the hall where students or guests perform or speak.

It’s not clear where one class starts and another class begins.

“If we were in a traditional school this would be four classrooms,” SAGE Center Principal Danelle Marsden said on a recent afternoon.

But that’s a word that educators at the center, which serves roughly 950 North Kansas City gifted elementary and middle school students, have tried to move away from.

“Everything is space,” Marsden said. “I’ve had to get away from ‘classroom.’”

As educators across the country continue to revamp curriculum to prepare students for 21st century workforces, some school districts have opted to redesign school buildings to put more emphasis on the projects, collaboration and technology.

Lecture-style learning is on the way out.

“(Learning) is much more self-directed. The shift that we are making and trying to help them make is spatially, how do you embody that ideal?” said Julie Michiels, a senior project designer with the global architecture and design company, Perkins+Will.

The company worked with the North Kansas City School District and Leawood-based Hoefer Wysocki Architects to design the innovation center, which opened for the 2016-17 school year and later expanded.

Design changes made to accompany new teaching methods have rapidly gained traction — both in existing public schools that don’t have the ability to totally reconstruct their infrastructure and in districts that can build new environments from scratch.

Examples in the Kansas City area include the new Olathe West High School or the Missouri Innovation Campus in Lee’s Summit, which was recently named one of 10 finalists in the South by Southwest Learn by Design competition.

The Northland Innovation Center, now in its second year, won a 2017 Excellence Award from the Center for Active Design.

The 33,800-square-foot center more closely resembles a start-up organization or a hi-tech company than the traditional classroom — with rows of desks and a teacher at the front — that most adults recall from childhood.

“Our challenge becomes how to stay above the curve,” Marsden said.

Michiels of Perkins+Will said the center is one of the “most progressive” school designs in her company’s portfolio.

So what does staying ahead of the curve in classroom design look like? Here’s what The Star noticed after an afternoon at the center.

Choice: More than 900 gifted students visit center’s campus once a week. Each spring students choose six to 10 units of study for the year and spend one day a week at the center.

Sometimes that might mean choosing to do independent studies in a certain subject. Other times that means improving a certain set of skills through the center’s specialized offerings, like a violin class or working in the student-run broadcast studio.

“We are trying to create teaching environments that can teach kids skills for jobs and careers that we don’t even know exist yet,” Michiels said. “It’s allowed the kids to move a little more freely among the teachers they they want to work with and the kids they want to collaborate with.”

Flexible seating: Students often choose where they want to sit — on wiggle seats, plush seats, mobile stools that can be configured in different combinations.

Besides helping boost creativity and cater to students who might think or learn better, it encourages them to be more mobile throughout the day.

The freedom to move is not necessarily an obvious jump for students, particularly for those who come from more structured classrooms.

“They have to be taught that,” said Chad Sutton, North Kansas City’s assistant superintendent for Pre-K through eighth grade. “But a young age kids needs a high level of trust from the teachers to believe in them and give them opportunities to work independently and be given an opportunity to achieve the goals set for them.”

Open-concept spaces: There are no walls between classes, though sometimes areas on the same floors are separated by glass partitions or delineated by brightly painted walls.

The concept isn’t entirely novel. Open-concept classrooms became popular in the 1970s, and some carried on for decades, Sutton said.

But open classrooms were still paired with traditional teaching methods without exploring the intention behind using unconventional classrooms. Eventually, the district opted to build walls again.

“I think what’s different today is we’ve really come to understand how to provide kids with learning experiences that can meet the different needs of the kids we have,” Sutton said. “We weren’t good at that 30 years ago.”

Of course, the high ceilings and open space has another advantage, room for student to fly drones indoors.

Makers Spaces: These laboratories have become a common feature of many schools and aim to provide students with a place to learn new tools, work with their hands and develop creative projects.

At the Northland Innovation Center, the makers space is called the Fabrication Lab, Fab Lab for short, and students can work on various projects after learning such skills as laser cutting, 3-D printing and soldering.

Third graders recently made 3-D characters, took photographs of them, and then put different backgrounds and words with the characters to make storybooks. Fifth graders were challenged to come up with a product that would make the world a better place, and their prototypes were judged by a “Shark Tank” inspired panel of community business leaders.

“They really started thinking outside of themselves and started thinking about what they could do to solve problems using these tools, and being part of the process,” said intermediate gifted teacher Cindy Turner. “Not just going and buying a solution.”

Writeable walls: At the center, quotes from Mark Twain and other visionaries might be imprinted on the glass walls of smaller office-like classrooms. Those spaces, right next to the large open-concept learning areas, are important places for teachers to address students in a more focused setting, like for a mini-lesson before students work on a project related to that lesson, or a more contained elective, like Spanish class.

But in a school without blackboards, the walls become a space to be creative. In addition to mobile whiteboards, students use writeable and erasable wall space to brainstorm ideas.

“It’s an environment that stimulates thinking,” said Jill Hackett, deputy superintendent of North Kansas City Schools. “Traditional schools are probably a little more limited and restrictive.”

Gender neutral bathrooms: It’s simple. There are two areas of single enclosed bathrooms with a communal sink on every floor. Red light indicates its occupied. Green indicates the stall is free. Have their been any issues? No, Marsden said.

Communal culture: Teachers at the center spent a year with Perkins+Will determining what their innovative environment should look like. One of the most difficult hurdles?

“They were vary frank about the fact that when they got to day one, we still didn’t know what to do about the walls.” Michiels says. In the various school spaces, there are no designated desks or seating, even for teachers. For many, the communal culture that the design of the school reinforced was difficult to get used to.

“They are used to having a room and ownership and this book is my book,” Michiels said. “We had to work with them to create different scenarios of how they might find harmony and an ebb and flow for them to be able to share things.

There is one locker room for students to stores belongings and coats throughout the day. Storage chests that anyone can use line the perimeter. Different spaces are marked through color blocking or other “landmarks” that identify different zones in larger spaces. Soundboards in the ceiling keep noise to a minimum.

“Teachers can see what each other is doing,” Michiels said. “They don’t have a wall between them anymore.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen