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Design Principles

Design Principle 1: Teach and Learning to Accommodate the Needs of All Learners

Charter schools provide opportunities for the design of innovative learning settings. Because their approval requires them to meet a need in school communities, charter schools often serve a specific population, target an underserved neighborhood, or provide an innovative approach to teaching. (NACSA 2007) Randall Fielding, founding director of DesignShare.com, a premier resource for innovative school planning and design, makes this point clear. “Alternative education programs in the United States are established for learners that may not succeed in traditional learning environments. To reach a diverse group of learners, educators are looking at innovative approaches to curriculum, staffing, schedules, technology, and facilities.” (Fielding 2007) This shift in educational approaches requires a related shift in the design and planning of learning environments.


Teacher-oriented, whole-group instruction taking place in individual, self-contained classrooms characterized the old “turf-centric” model. (Fielding 2006) Active student participation and cooperative learning in flexible, diverse and dynamic educational spaces characterizes the new model. Students work in groups of various sizes, are more active learners, and move about more freely within the learning environment. Optimal use of technology and easy access to web-based information facilitates new methods of instruction, “letting teachers become guides and coaches; allowing students to analyze, evaluate, and manipulate information; and permitting curriculums to be individualized.” (U.S. Department of Education 2000) Personalization of teaching and project-based learning are fundamental aspects of the new model. In this new facility design model, the educational environment has become a more open, flexible, and fluidly designed setting that enables a variety of activities to occur while weaving together virtual and physical learning spaces.


In developing creative approaches to engage all students in life-long learning, harnessing technology as a learning tool, and reaching out to the community as partners in the education of our youth, charter schools in particular have redefined the educational facility. “From educational models–that only a decade ago–required most of knowledge and materials to be dispensed from within the classroom, learners have growing opportunities to connect with experiences outside of the classroom. This shift is changing time utilization in schools, how project work is created and delivered, and the collaborative relationship between student and teacher.” (Fielding 2006) Teachers also need practical and stimulating teaching spaces, as well as good collaborative and personal workspaces to do their best work. By decentralizing administrative spaces, more strong active school leadership and collaboration is encouraged.

Design Principle 2: Maximize Health, Physical Comfot, Well-Being, Safety, and Security

In the past decade, concern has grown about a number of health and safety issues in learning environments, including air and light quality, youth crime and violence, and more recently terrorism. School planning and design research shows how to build safety into facility design by strategically located windows, entry points, and public gathering places. (Schneider et al. 2000) Schools that provide space for youth activities and after-school programs can be safer schools too, since most student violence occurs between the hours of three and six pm. In addition to providing healthy options for filling time, or for providing for quality after school time for working parents, the various enrichment activities increase the personal connection between students and their school.

The size of the student population and scale of the school building have an effect on safety, well-being, and student performance. (Bergsagel et al. 2007) Charter schools most often create small communities of learners where individualized and personalized learning is reinforced. This helps to maintain supervision, encourage healthy social interactions among students, teachers, and administrators, and establish a sense of community and connectedness that promotes a safe environment. Randall Fielding, director of Fielding Nair International, is convinced that “a hierarchy of spaces and groups remains one of the most vital aspects of comfort and security. Thoughtful design of the site and facility enhances the sense of belonging by providing spaces for a layered hierarchy of groups.” (Fielding 2006) Additionally welcoming, humanly scaled settings and thoughtfully placed display spaces that celebrate learning in the physical environment promote personalization, positive student culture, and higher student self-esteem. 

At the most basic level, educational buildings must meet minimum health and safety codes. (Uniform Building Code 2007) In the classroom, it is additionally essential to provide excellent air quality with operable windows, allowing for control of ventilation and fresh air, as well as localized heating and cooling controls, acoustic control devices, and natural and task appropriate lighting. A growing body of literature suggests that behavior can be significantly influenced by the quality of the learning environment. “Attractive, well designed, and well-maintained facilities communicate respect for the people and activities housed within them and contribute to a positive school climate, good discipline, and productive learning. (Schneider 2002)

Design Principle 3: Be Environmentally Responsible, Clean, and Green

Ecologically sensitive, “green” ideas are helping to change the design of educational environments.  Randall Fielding notes, “With stretched capital and operational budgets, school organizations are looking to facilities to become more energy efficient in their daily operations. Educators are consistently interested in sustainable ideas that are not only environmentally responsible and good for the bottom line, but ultimately work hand-in-hand with the educational process.” (Fielding 2007) The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that at least 1.5 billion dollars per year can be saved through modest energy conservation modifications in new and existing schools. (Energy Smart Schools 2008) Conserving energy becomes an economic necessity for charter schools as they make effective use of available resources.

“High performance schools” have implemented a wide range of ecological principles, including increased use of daylight, green roofs, natural ventilation, and recycled materials. (SBIC 2008) Facility strategies that allow daylighting while controlling heat gain and glare significantly affect the planning of schools. Additionally, some schools are opting for green roofs to conserve water, control the heat island effect, and expand educational spaces. Daylighting is an important component in improving student performance, as one well-known study indicates that students with high levels of classroom daylighting show improved math and reading test scores (Heschong Mahone Group 2002). Studies also indicate that physical comfort correlates positively with the ability to concentrate, student attendance rates, and teacher retention. (Lackney 2003). In the classroom, it is essential to provide excellent air quality with natural ventilation, use of environmentally responsible building materials, local heating and cooling controls, acoustic control devices, and natural and task-appropriate lighting and illumination levels. (U.S. Department of Energy 2007)

Charter schools have the opportunity to try new “green” ideas in linking the educational process to facility design. Schools can actively teach stewardship of environmental resources through careful and conscious management of land, air, water, energy, and building materials. This helps students learn that taking care of their community is important and that their actions have an impact on the world in which they live. Additionally, a landmark study on the cost of “Greening America’s Schools” shows that the 2% average premium for green buildings is well worth the benefits, which include reductions in water pollution, improved environmental quality and increased productivity of learning in an improved school environment. (Kats 2006) 

Design Principle 4: Be Practical, Cost Effective, Flexible, and Adaptable

Charter schools are often created within difficult economic and time constraints. Taking advantage of available materials, simple construction processes, flexible spaces, and long term growth plans for renovation and reuse of existing buildings can create remarkably innovative and cost-effective schools. The best school designs allow for spatial flexibility and adaptability so that the mix of learning areas (individual, small-team, and large-group) easily adjusts as needs vary. “Flexible, open structural systems that allow spaces to be reconfigured over time will best accommodate change.” (U.S. Department of Education 2000)

Promoting sustained mentoring relationships among students and adults, teacher and student autonomy and accountability, and easily accessible and dispersed services and resources offer practical and effective ways for students to be encouraged academically and socially. (Bergsagel 2007). Finally, there is wide recognition that it takes strong leadership with individuals determined to promote the charter’s mission and business plan to achieve effective learning and cost containment.

Design Principle 5: Serve as a Center of the Community

In reaching out to the community as “partners” in the education of our youth charter schools have positively reconfigured the larger educational community. Blurring boundaries between school and community, charter schools incorporate the neighborhood and its social, cultural, and natural assets into the students’ learning environment. Rather than building a comprehensive array of facilities and programs (traditional gyms, fields, auditoriums, and swimming pools), they enlist community resources and utilize local libraries, museums, zoo, parks, colleges, and even industry for extended learning opportunities. Charter schools sited on college campuses, within civic museum landscapes, and in dense urban fabrics, create dynamic synergies with curriculum and facility design. (Springer 2007) 

Conversely, in developing ways to engage all citizens in life-long learning, schools are becoming centers of civic as they integrate shared uses such as neighborhood health clinics, after school care and adult education programs, recreation centers, and other family life support services into their context for community use. Only a decade ago, educational models were built as stand-alone instructional facilities that restricted community access and required most knowledge and materials to be dispensed from within the classroom. Today, schools serve both as symbols and centers of their communities, designed to be more open, to showcase learning, to encourage community access, and to serve a variety of community needs. Several educational institutions allow students flexibility in offering internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, and other learning opportunities based on work and service while the institutions are reaping benefits of shared facility resources. Prakash Nair notes that, “charter schools are also taking an active role in economic development and workforce development as they work closely with local industry to create job training, and certification programs to fulfill workforce and employment demands.” (Design Share.com) In this way, charter schools are developing supportive relationships with local businesses that are productive to both students and the local economy.

Charter schools integrated into the fabric of their community additionally support the principles of “smart growth” (site selection and planning coordinated with surrounding community development planning) while strengthening a community’s sense of identity and coherence. Serving as a community hub, schools today must manifest the highest standard of design, appropriate to public buildings. They need to add a sense of beauty, purposefulness, and permanence to the community. By capturing the noble character of public architecture, they should serve as a visible symbol of community pride.

Design Princple 6: Involve All Community Interests in Life Cycle of the School

It is essential to engage the public and its multiple stakeholders in a meaningful and authentic process when envisioning and designing schools. Broadening the planning process input by engaging all people who will use the school, including educators, parents, students, senior citizens, government officials, and members of the neighborhood community and civic and business organizations, enables consideration of community diversity. Listen to them and value their input, respecting their diversity in age, activity group, culture, socio-economic background, gender, and profession. Be honest and open about the cost and financing of the project and use a transparent and inclusive process of design and construction to help build trust between the school and community. Believing in the effectiveness of this public process is at the very heart of our democratic system, which holds that all people have a right to participate in making decisions that affect them.

Community participation creates a shared sense of purpose and strengthened commitment. Varying viewpoints will also enrich the design process because they broaden the range of ideas and solutions considered. When the community sees themselves as visionaries, they are more willing to work together to set goals, solve problems and provide the school with ongoing support to ensure its success. Within this process, it is essential to set aside time and resources to ensure fully informed participation in the planning process. This public process should occur before the development of a facilities master plan and architectural drawings. Too often the community perceives that it can only rubber stamp decisions that have already been made by administrators and architects. Authenticity of involvement is the most important part in the planning process. 

Some ideas for community involvement include: a site walk to experience the opportunities and constraints of the site collectively, a vision plan linking pedagogy and community facilities, a visit to diverse surrounding learning environments including museums, ecological parks, science and art labs, as well as businesses, a survey given to community members to identify resources and places in the community that can partner with the school, and a “pattern” workshop where learning activities and spaces are diagrammed with educators, administrators, community members, designers and students. Authentic community engagement can result in more creative ideas, more trust, and broader support, but continuous evolution of the design even after its construction is complete is essential in developing a strong sense of sustained community and school engagement for everyone involved. 

Design Principle 7: Think Renovation and Adaptive Resuse of Existing Buildings

Renovation and re-purposing of existing facilities are important economic and sustainable ideas in the securing of a building for a charter school. “Existing schools should be renovated and preserved whenever possible, especially in cases where reuse preserves natural resources or valuable historic and cultural assets. Building reuse helps children and adults alike to embrace the social and cultural heritage of their community.” (U.S. Department of Education 2000) Adaptive reuse is indicative of another larger trend in creating charter schools, especially in urban areas where land is scarce. Adaptive reuse has involved the conversion of churches, movie theaters, shopping malls, and big box retail stores into schools. Finally, students today are learning in non-traditional facilities that redefine the concept of “school.” From a high-rise office building, to railroad-car classrooms, to an underutilized YWCA, to a nearby zoo, alternative spaces for educating youth represent an innovative public use of various occupied facilities. Lease options available to charter schools in public places make unique and effective partnerships. Many charter school projects demonstrate that constrained situations can lead to excellent educational facilities.