Kansas City area’s digital-age schools hail an education revolution

Students at Liberty’s new EPiC elementary school will be able to work at their own speeds or in collaboration with other students near and far. Touring the school’s “Huddle Space” recently were (from left) Superintendent Jeremy Tucker, Principal Michelle Schmitz and Kevin Nelson, an associate with Hollis + Miller Architects.
Students at Liberty’s new EPiC elementary school will be able to work at their own speeds or in collaboration with other students near and far. Touring the school’s “Huddle Space” recently were (from left) Superintendent Jeremy Tucker, Principal Michelle Schmitz and Kevin Nelson, an associate with Hollis + Miller Architects. The Kansas City Star

Nothing so far looked anything like the schools that Principal Michelle Schmitz — or most anyone else — learned and taught in.

Her tour of Liberty’s new school for education’s digital age had already wandered through bright wall-less expanses and past unexpected learning nooks when she arrived at a durably floored corner of the school she called “maker space.”

What are students going to do here?

Tough question, it turned out. She pondered it. Finally, the essential answer was: Who knows?

“It could be almost anything,” she said.

And that’s the point.

If you haven’t seen the new learning environments yet, they’re coming.

The catch word for the digital education revolution is that this time the change on schools is “disruptive.”

There’s no trying to hide and ride it out. Digital capabilities are changing how students learn. Teachers have to change with it.

And new construction — like the remodeling of Liberty’s EPiC elementary school at 650 Conistor St. — is trying to predict what is, in many ways, unpredictable.

The new school environments are “hackable,” says Harvard University education futurist Daniel Wilson. Cut it up, move the walls, shift the furniture. The new schools are all open, flexible spaces and loaded with online connectivity.

Mobile technology means children can — and will — learn anywhere.

Education’s old transmission model — where a teacher anchors at the front of the room — is totally old school, Wilson said.

Students are constructing and co-constructing their knowledge, he said. They are creating content with teachers as their guides. Individually. In groups. Across ages. Across districts. Across nations.

Step into these new learning spaces, says Keith Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking based in Washington, D.C., and you’ll wonder: “Where’s the front of the class?”

They’re giving names to collaborative learning spaces scattered throughout new high schools like Cyber Commons. With cafe seating and plenty of outlets and USB chargers built in.

Tom Murray loves walking through these new schools. He has seen many as a digital learning policy and advocacy director for the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington.

That student with her laptop sipping a fruit drink might be taking a break, Murray said, or she may be “collaborating on a group project with kids in China.”

What you won’t see: long, locker-lined corridors. Kids with laptops or tablets don’t need lockers. And corridors are wasted space.

There are significant cost savings as well in new designs — a huge advantage in education’s hard economics.

By reducing the projected square footage needed to accommodate district growth, Liberty is getting some $90 million worth of program expansion at a cost of $51 million, said Kirk Horner, president of architectural operations for Hollis + Miller Architects, based in Overland Park.

At EPiC (Every Person inspired to Create) and at coming high school additions, spaces can be used in many ways. Gymnasiums, laboratories, cafeterias, media centers, corridors and other once-specialized parts of a school no longer sit empty most of the time, Horner said. The square-footage of construction is reduced.

Even stairs double as gathering spots, seating areas. They’re called “learning stairs.”

Students won’t necessarily be working within one grade level, but mixing ages — older students and younger students inspiring each other.

It’s the end of “bells and cells,” Horner said, meaning the end of students waiting for the end-of-class whistle to file to their next homogenous classroom.

At the charter Kauffman School, 6401 Paseo, various groups of open and giant-windowed classrooms face into common areas that shift their function almost hour to hour.

When the education team and architects sat down to blank sheets of paper to dream up the building — ready for its second year — the watchwords for their new-age school became “community” and “transparency,” said Hannah Lofthus, the chief academic officer and founding principal.

The right learning environment for children not only means creating inspirational thinking spaces but bringing children and adults together in new ways.

That flexible common space is some kind of community watering hole — serving as the library, tutoring center, small-group workshop, study hall and even space for some physical fitness activities.

There are no desks for teachers in Kauffman’s classrooms. Everything in there happens on their feet. Their desks are in a separate workroom, placed together, encouraging professional collaboration.

“You must not neglect the value of space,” Harvard’s Wilson said. “Space and environment are powerful.”

Even so, big change is a hard leap.

At the start of a design process, in the surveys of staff, 30 to 50 percent typically will favor no changes, said Jim French, who heads the K-12 school design division for the Overland Park-based DLR Group.

Some resistance is understandable, he said. Testing pressure weighs on schools. The idea of significant change while you still have to test well at the end of the school year certainly induces anxiety.

“They are afraid they may fall,” he said, especially if a school has been successful. “But it is easier to have this conversation now than five years ago.”

Many can take their cue from Joplin, Mo. The horrific tornado of May 2011 destroyed its high school as well as several lower-grade schools amid the 161 lives lost.

The school district needed at least three years to design and build a new permanent high school, but a temporary site was needed within months.

DLR and others, working with administrators and teachers, took the opportunity to throw digital-age thinking into the interim school in a hastily rehabbed old shopping center.

The idea of a testing ground made it easier to develop and carry daring digital-age design into the new high school, which is now ready to open in August.

The federal government also is stepping up, with the Federal Communications Commission voting July 11 to bolster the E-rate program that distributes financial resources to help schools in high-poverty urban and rural areas keep pace with digital technology demands.

“It’s a huge step,” Murray said, that will provide increases in bandwidth and Wi-Fi access, especially in rural school districts.

The next steps, whatever directions they lead, are fascinating, Wilson said.

In many ways, the flexible school designs are a way of hedging bets, he said. Because with the seemingly exponential rise in technological advancement, who knows what we will be seeing in 10 years?

Will education share space, not just between educators and students, but with community business and industry partners, uniting in college and career training?

Will schools separate more and more from old paradigms of measuring the time that students spend in seats, or marching them place to place according to schedules?

Schmitz toured the EPiC school with her teachers last week, and the excitement over the possibilities was palpable, she said. It was a mix of enthusiasm and some fear.

Liberty School District Superintendent Jeremy Tucker expects some anxiousness.

“There will be growing pains,” he said. “We’ll be trying things and retrying things. Adult learning will be going on as well.”

If all this seems overwhelming, not everything is changing.

Outside the school’s spacious windows is the playground, brand new in gleaming colors — and very familiar.

Kids are still kids.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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