Magazine article Techniques

Building a Learning Community

Magazine article Techniques

Building a Learning Community

Article excerpt


Here's a dream I have. I'm in Washington, D.C., which has a school system forever in the middle of major crises. Buildings are in disrepair. Student test scores are dismal. There is a lessening tax base and an air of frustration - except that right across the street is the Department of Justice. And there's the Air and Space Museum ... and the Natural History Museum ... and the American History Museum. What's wrong with this picture?

In Dearborn, Michigan, a partnership of the Ford Motor Company, the Henry Ford Museum and the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency has produced a charter high school located within the Henry Ford Museum. One hundred ninth graders were chosen by lottery from all over the areas surrounding Detroit to become the inaugural class of the Henry Ford Academy of Manufacturing Arts & Sciences.

Their classroom is one building on the museum grounds. But that classroom spans 12 acres and the students are learning all of their traditional subjects in the context of more than a million artifacts that surround them. Next school year those new 10th graders will move to the Greenfield Village area of the museum grounds to make room for the new incoming class. Greenfield Village is an 80-acre site of nearly 100 historic buildings that Henry Ford himself purchased, dismantled and reconstructed in Dearborn. The collection includes the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop, Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory and the homes of Stephen Foster and Noah Webster and other noteworthy inventors and creators.

Students will learn science, mathematics, social studies, history and all other subjects through the resources that exist in the museum. That's primary source learning. By 12th grade students will be participating in mentorships with professionals throughout the Detroit area.

To some degree every community in America has resources that haven't even begun to be explored. In the meantime, we keep chugging away down this path of building more and bigger school buildings that continue to isolate learning from our communities. I'm not saying we should stop building school buildings, but I don't think our grandchildren will be able to afford to maintain so many of them.

"Institutions" of learning

The current standard for the size of a high school is 30 acres plus one additional acre for every 100 students. For a high school of 2,000 students this means a site of more than 50 acres. Sites of this magnitude are available only in rural areas or on the fringe of most urban regions. This usually results in schools that are disconnected from the center of their communities.

By isolating learning on single large school sites and designing them to conform to an impersonal industrial aesthetic we have contributed to the segregation of the school from its support community. Even worse, excluding any significant or sustained input of teachers, students, parents and community representatives from the design and planning process has contributed to the development of a whole generation of facilities that, in many cases, have failed to meet their functional criteria both as learning environments and as inclusive community neighborhood gathering places.

More than 47 percent of all existing school buildings were constructed in the 1950s and '60s. Their architectural expressions are of the "International Style," which originated in Germany in the 1920s and was based on the aesthetics of factories and ocean liners. Cost limitations and the need for rapid construction caused by the Baby Boom also influenced the image and aesthetics. Architects developed these designs in collaboration with manufacturers and suppliers of building systems, which resulted in a system of prefabricated, mass-produced modular building components. …

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