Designing charter school spaces that pull double duty

“Meet you in the gymacafetorium!”

That probably wasn’t a common phrase during your school days, but for many charter schools around the country, this is just part of the vernacular. For charter schools, the extra flexibility they enjoy often comes with budget limitations, especially for those just getting started.

As a result, many new charter operators are finding clever and effective ways to make their spaces work twice (or three times) as hard as a normal space. What begins as an idea to save money is often transforming into new ways of approaching curriculum.

Charter school innovation meets budget
Working with charter school operators in various states, it’s easy to spot how different the various laws and regulations impact the schools’ operations. But in general, these schools share many of the same traits, similar to how they’re described by the Colorado Department of Education:

A charter school generally has more flexibility than traditional public schools as regards to curriculum, fiscal management, and overall school operations, and may offer an education program that is more innovative…

Yet, the charter sector in general consistently faces a lot of the same challenges as well, including serving more students with disabilities, improving student achievement, accommodating students who aren’t native English speakers, and finding ways to welcome the underserved students across the nation. Plus, there’s the ongoing effort to increase capacity so they can serve all the students on waiting lists, which recently numbered at more than a million.

In a report published by The Mind Trust, the organization nevertheless challenges charters to continue the quest for innovative approaches:

School operators must explore entirely new models of schooling, particularly those that challenge the traditional school model in use of time, space, technology and people’s roles in school … Operators will need to reconsider how students experience learning in schools, creating new models that give students personalized and authentic learning experiences that motivate them to be engaged in their learning.

Of course, depending on how your state funds charter schools, this kind of innovation can be challenging to achieve. Many charters have been forced to cut programs or even consolidate two schools into one building.

Plus, because charters don’t get construction funding from property tax bond issues, they have to find other ways to raise the money through private investment, especially in the first three to five years, until they can build the student count and establish a track record for academic performance.

When so much focus is on the budget, creativity often falls to the back burner.

Developing better spaces through design
The good news is that many charters are applying the same innovation from their educational approach to their budget concerns. By working with an architecture firm that specializes in education, they can co-create an imaginative approach to the physical space.

Often, that starts with spaces serving more than one purpose, like that gymacafetorium, which is often a flexible area that can transform from gym to cafeteria to meeting room quickly and easily. Some schools also use those same large areas for community gatherings following the afternoon bell—activities like community meetings, adult education, and even health and wellness programs for area residents. This allows those spaces to be continually used throughout the week and weekends, days and evenings. The community gets access to a prime gathering space, the charter school establishes valuable relationships with other local organizations, and the budget gets some help with revenue to support operations.

Sometimes it’s finding space you didn’t know you had. Working with Woodrow Wilson Academy in Westminster, Colorado, we were able to incorporate a “Learning Stair,” a collaborative area where students can gather and work together in a fun and creative space. This area was not part of the original building program, but through creative and efficient use of space, it became “found space” at no additional construction cost to the school. Now complete, this area provides educators with an additional option as they build curriculum.

I’m amazed with all the creative ways charter schools are connecting with their communities and finding new ways to welcome students. Maybe that means a gymacafetorium, maybe it’s something we haven’t dreamed up yet, but we’re excited to see what’s next.

Chris Heinz is a partner at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including charter, public and private K-12 and higher education. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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