Eagle Mountain Saginaw ISD New Middle School Charrette: Perspective from the New Guy

One might assume that after all the prescriptive building codes, school facility specifications, and time-tested architectural approaches are applied, new schools are all pretty much the same. While these necessary requirements ensure safety and functionality, there's plenty of room, so to speak, to design a unique facility that meets the needs, priorities, and aspirations of its community.

I joined VLK a few days ago. While I knew the firm designed great schools, I had no idea how VLK included teachers, administrators and even students in the process. This week, I was fortunate to experience the charrette for a transformative middle school for Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD. There I discovered VLK's multi-phased engagement process to ensure stakeholders have a voice in the design of their schools.

The charrette enables architects to briefly get out of the way of the design process to allow teachers, administrators, and students to lend their insight. Through a curated series of exercises, the facility begins taking shape. Preconceptions give way to tangible design concepts that address many of the issues and priorities discussed.

In all respects, the charrette was a catered affair. Yes, lunch was included, but VLK also predicted and catered to the group's every need to ensure an efficient and enjoyable experience. Stakeholders could focus completely on their participation, lending their insight and working together to better define the school they need.

During the half-day session, participants pondered what a relevant school library should be: a museum of books or a center for multimedia? Does it need to be well-defined within walls or can it permeate through the building?

Fresh ideas regarding transparency and fluidity of the classroom spurred robust discussion around traditional walls and their limitations. Collaborative space was widely considered an important asset to Next Gen Learning.

Teacher perspectives were critical to the discussion. Teachers, those masters of adaptability who all too often make due in less-than-ideal spaces, took advantage of the charrette to define the adaptable, energizing learning spaces they need.

Student participants also provided valuable input. Eighth grader Sienna offered her perspective on a student's access to teachers and the need for backpack storage space.

Here, stakeholders took advantage of the freedom to think beyond the limitations of their current classrooms.

The games and activities completed were the conduit to co-creation. They enabled students, teachers, and district executives to work together to realize a common vision for their future school.

I've participated in a number of planning charrettes, but I was most impressed with VLK's approach. Rather than leading them to answers, the VLK team facilitated an open and inclusive dialogue driven by the participants. It is a rare opportunity for teachers and students to contribute to their school's design. By the end of the day, it was clear that EMS ISD stakeholders were well on the way to forging a unified vision of their new middle school. From this process, a new school, unique from all others, began to take shape.