Building 21st Century Schools at the Forefront of Bond Program

John A. Dubiski Career High School in Grand Prairie is a public high school of choice with a focus on equipping students with the skills needed for 21st century professions. Click on image for more photos of 21st century schools.

Gone are classrooms with chalkboards, rows of desks and teachers who only lecture. Consider instead a school with moveable walls, tables with laptop connections, and an instructor who facilitates lessons with online videos, interactive experiments, and small groups of students.

Welcome to 21st century learning, an approach to education that seeks to bring today’s schools into the modern age through technology, design, and new ways of delivering instruction.

“We need to prepare our students for the future,” said HISD’s Sue Robertson, general manager of Facility Planning. “The goal of the 2012 bond program is to ensure we are designing facilities that reflect the importance of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.”

What that means on a practical level will be the focus of “Building 21st Century Schools,” a half-day symposium on March 6 expected to draw more than 250 HISD parents, students, teachers, staff, and administrators.

Learn more about 21st Century Learning

The event is intended to help participants think about the opportunities and challenges of crafting instruction and facilities for modern learning, and follows a similar program held in December, “Building the Future.”

The agenda includes presentations by Andre Perry of the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education, and Steven Bingler, president and founder of Concordia architects.

Also attending will be Christian Carlson of NBBJ Architects, who will discuss “Design for the 21st Century.” Carlson  worked on The Gates Foundation building in Seattle, considered an innovative example of community engagement and sustainability through design.

Learn more about The Gates Foundation building

Scott Allen, principal of HISD’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, will attend with members of his school’s Project Advisory Team. He looks forward to the event, especially after the December program that showed examples of 21st century school design.

“That gave us a good foundation,” said Allen, whose school is slated for a new building in Houston’s downtown Theater District. “I’m hopeful we’re going to see more examples and hear from leaders who have done what we’re about to do.”

Allen recently toured new schools in the Dallas area and was impressed by facilities that offered open spaces that encourage collaboration. “You walked down the halls and you saw learning happening,” he said.

See photos of 21st century schools in the Dallas area

At the March 6 symposium, organizers plan to bring design examples from across the country. Equally important will be HISD educators discussing strategies for bringing instruction practices into the 21st century.

“We know that well-designed buildings make a difference,” Roberston said. “But at the end of the day, the teachers are the most important tool for improving student outcomes.”

Some of the key components of 21st century schools include:

•        Flexible spaces: Education must evolve beyond a traditional classroom configuration.

•        Differentiated learning: Students have individual learning styles, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t engender success.

•        Project-based learning: When a project has real-world application, student engagement increases.

•        Blended learning: A way to combine instructor-led classroom learning with mobile and online education using such tools as TV, cell phones, tablets and videoconferencing.

•        Commons: A place considered the physical “heart” of the school that offers a comfortable place to gather, problem-solve and collaborate.

“Under the 2012 bond, we are committed to building schools that provide a solid foundation for modern learning,” Roberston said.

The symposium comes as some of the schools in the 2012 bond program are beginning the design process. Architects were recently selected for four of the 40 school projects and more contracts are expected to be awarded in the coming months.

District administrators recently set up a 21st-Century Schools Advisory Council with architects, professors and educators to pull in the expertise of Houston’s diverse educational, design and construction community as it proceeds with the bond program. The group will meet monthly to offer assistance and advice on building state-of-the art learning environments.

 “We have a really big opportunity for making a huge impact,” said Dan Bankhead, HISD general manager of Facility Design. “We want to ensure that what we do now will last us through the future.”