Guest post by Jay Haugen, Superintendent of Schools, Farmington Area Public Schools
What we’re working towards in Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota is nothing new. For decades we, all of us working in education, have been part of significant efforts to change education, to make it more personalized, more student-centered, based more on the strengths and talents of every child, their uniqueness, their passion, helping them reach their highest aspirations and find their worthy purpose.
A New Design for Education
What’s different with what we’re doing in Farmington Area Public Schools is not what we are after but how we go about it. Instead of making decisions at a district level for our schools, we’re empowering the people who know best how to help us lead the district towards success. We’ve shared our goal and are working with school and classroom leaders for how to achieve those goals. We’re including students. We’re offering support and then getting out of the way.
Each teacher is unique, what is successful for one will not be successful for another, just the same as it is for the children we teach. The only way to have our hopes and dreams met is to unleash our staff to find their joy and passion in the classroom, to use their unique talents and strengths to meet our mission as a school district. Our job is to provide the unique support they each need. Through this approach we now have hundreds of visitors each year at all levels of our school district to see the future of education being created.
As our staff created these changes it became increasingly clear that a major impediment, therefore a major area of needed support, was trying to turn traditional one-size-fits all classrooms into flexible learning spaces that facilitated personalized learning. Space matters. Our teachers, and principals, were scrounging throughout the district, finding old tables, leftover chairs, old bookcases and the like to create spaces. Being teachers they even turned to their own pocketbooks to buy furniture and looked for donations, but in the end there is only so much that can happen when the space you are given is four walls and a door.
Following our staff’s lead, it was clear we needed to provide significant support in regard to creating spaces that truly supported their work, and their student’s work toward personalizing learning. Thus, the Innovative Spaces Project was born. Thanks to careful budgeting and the way district projects worked out, we found ourselves with extra budget to reinvest. Normally these extra dollars would go into meeting further facility needs, but we asked ourselves, “What if we spent these dollars directly in support our mission and strategic plan as a school district through an innovative space project in every building in our district?” Initially there was some skepticism as to the relative importance of this sort of work, but once our teachers and principals shared their passion for this work and how space matters in regard to them fulfilling our hopes and dreams for all students and for achieving our strategic plan these faded away.
Last spring the school board authorized money to create flexible spaces in every building, with the full understanding that this project would be like all others in our district, led by staff and supported by us. In other words, teachers were the designers and decision-makers as to what each space looked like. We planned a day in early summer and had each building principal work with their staff to identify a team of teachers, and when possible students, to be part of a design process where they would not just tell an architect what they want, but learn about the design process and actually generate the designs themselves.
Last June, 60 educators, gathered in the media center of our high school to learn about design and to apply what they learned to create spaces that would be built. To accomplish this our lead architect brought in 18 additional architects to teach, guide and capture the designs each team created. The outcomes were out of this world.
Learn more in this video created by our lead architect about the process:
The sense of excitement and support were palpable among all the staff involved. What they accomplished was written on their faces and conveyed through their words as half of the teams were able to present their initial plans to the school board and community a couple of months later. Our architect has been out again to meet with each team to refine their projects and the other half of the teams will soon be in front of the board showing their final plans. The board will then approve final plans for all nine sites and they will be sent out for bid, with plans that before the end of this winter construction will begin.
Besides the obvious benefit of bringing these flexible learning spaces to our staff and students, these spaces will also serve as examples for each school community, building support so that when larger projects are put forth in our community to create spaces such as these they will come with an already established level of understanding and support.