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How a suburban school district partnered with the Children’s Museum to build a school for kids

From the oval suspended ramp at the center of the Ehrman Crest Elementary and Middle School, grassy fields can be seen through large windows. Though it’s overcast outside, natural light floods the first-floor cafeteria.

The school is in a fairly remote location for the suburban Seneca Valley School District. That was by design, said Superintendent Tracy Vitale: The school’s design team wanted to give kids the space to be outside, so they could better appreciate and learn from nature. But on days when they can’t get outside, officials wanted to bring nature into the building. Many of the building’s walls are curved like the ramp to mimic nature with few right angles.

The ramp itself serves multiple purposes. Its magnetic walls are covered with student artwork, and its base is lined with a bench long enough to fit an entire class. It’s similar to the ramp on the first floor of the Carnegie Science Center, on the city’s North Side, and the oval ramp at the Helsinki Library in Finland.

“But this ramp is not just built to look cool," said Vitale. "It’s built to, number one, promote physical activity by our students and staff. But it’s also built as a way to teach children about geometry and angles and circles versus spheres, and all the different dimensions that are here."

Laura Peters

It’s one of the many built-in “learning moments” that Vitale notes while walking through the new state-of-the-art $63 million elementary school, which the district opened at the beginning of this school year. The school was recognized by TIME magazine late last year for modeling “the future of educational institutions.”

Vitale says while the building provides opportunities for moments of learning with prompts for teachers imbedded throughout the space, it’s the culture of the building that matters most.

“Everything is designed here to be fun and for children to be learning all day long, whether there is direct instruction or not," she said. "We have fabulous teachers who spend a lot of time planning their lessons, but some of that organic learning happens because of the building."

The walls of each wing are painted in a gradient — an opportunity to talk about color theory. The solar panels on the roof are accessible for class tours. Every classroom is equipped with a sound system that connects to lapel microphones to amplify a teacher’s voice. Each wing’s hallways are wide to include common spaces with wheeled furniture that classes can share. Floor tiles are arranged in mathematical patterns chosen by teachers.

Vitale said most aspects of the building were designed with student and teacher input. Teachers put in orders for all the furniture in their rooms to give students flexible options. Vitale said the goal was to have the school reflect the look and feel of informal learning spaces — like a children’s museum — to better engage kids.

“If we want kids to be curious … we want them to carry the torch in America of being the country of innovators … if we want to encourage that kind of thinking and creativity, these are the types of schools that we need to build in the future,” she said.

A new vision for learning

The Ehrman Crest school replaced an 84-year-old building, which the district chose to replace rather than renovate. Vitale said the project gave the district the opportunity to re-think what purpose a school building could serve. They hired CannonDesign, whose designers consulted with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Troy Hoggard, Cannon’s lead designer on the project, said that from the outset, it was important to talk with students about their ideal learning environment.

“So instead of starting out with ‘Here’s a room, how would you use it?’ we asked, 'What are the experiences in your life where you really learned something?'" he said. "'Is it when you’re laying in the grass listening to someone read to you? Is it when you’re reading? Are you with a group of people or by yourself? When do you remember things best?'”

In those early conversations, teachers said they wanted the ability to take their class outside without having to plan the entire day around it. Kids said they wanted more space to themselves outside of the classroom.

Anne Fullenkamp, the Children’s Museum’s senior director of creative experiences, said she offered her observations of how kids engage with the museum.

She consulted on the “look and feel” of the Seneca Valley school. She took board members on tours of the museum and emphasized that they didn’t want to install permanent exhibits in the school. Instead, the goal was to give teachers flexibility to use the space in multiple ways.

“We were really adamant that this wasn’t a gimmick: This wasn’t about putting a big set piece tree in the library," she recalled. "This was the Children’s Museum working with Cannon side-by-side to really help understand what it means to bring an informal learning environment into a school, and how that was needed to really meet what schools in the 21st century needed."

Her end goal was to give students a space they could make their own, as they do at the Children’s Museum — where kids typically lead the experience, running into the building as their parents follow behind.

“The teachers still have their classroom and those are working a lot like they did before, but we also have those shared open spaces," Fullenkamp said. "So there’s more fluidity that way. It’s a little bit of a balance where the kids can have a little bit more control over what they do and where they do it.”

Hoggard said traditional classroom designs assumed that all children learn in the same way. That mindset is now understood to limit a teacher’s flexibility, and Hoggard said it no longer matches the expectations for students either. The project's design, he said, showed how buildings can expose students to different learning conditions.

“I think that we still built a school where the pedagogy can change quite a bit, and the school could still accommodate that," he said. "I think that’s one of the reasons that schools haven’t changed very much, there’s this fear … that we will create this sort of straitjacket for a generation to come and how they need to learn. And I think that’s nonsense."

What all kids deserve

For most of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts, the biggest constraint on school design is money.

The state gives districts only about a third of what it costs them to operate. That compels schools to largely rely on their own property tax base to fund buildings and the teaching that takes place inside them, which means wealthy communities often have the best-funded schools.

Vitale, the Seneca Valley superintendent, said that the district has had financial difficulties: In the 2008 recession, it laid off 50 staff members, and created a nonprofit foundation to raise money for the schools. None of that money went into the construction of Ehrman Crest, but it has kept the district stable.

“You have to carry [what you can] into good times and you can stretch your money more," she said. "But I recognize Seneca Valley is in a really good financial standing and financial position because of our property tax values."

Still, she said, the new school is the kind of facility that all students deserve. And there is reason to think poorer districts may be get more help in the future.

Last month a Commonwealth Court judge ruled that the way the state funds education is unconstitutional, as it creates huge gaps between wealthy and poor districts. The judge’s nearly 800-page ruling said that the current funding system violates the state’s equal protection clause, meaning students are not getting an equal or fair amount of funding.

The Education Law Center brought that suit, arguing that the state's funding system disproportionately negatively impacts Black and brown students, since they are more likely than white students to live in districts with lower property values.

Education Law Center Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr said the goal is to narrow the inequity gap — even if it isn't closed entirely.

“We can’t say that if we win adequate funding that will ensure every child has the kind of state-of-the-art facilities in Seneca Valley, but at least we should ensure that schools would be clean, comfortable, safe facilities with adequate technology and learning materials.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first proposed budget includes a nearly 8% increase in basic education funding. But he has said that it will take time to ensure that all students have the resources and space they need.

Corrected: March 23, 2023 at 5:30 PM EDT
Corrected to change that the ramp is similar to the science center.