ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - Students in a psychology class watched a video on flat-screen monitors, then scattered to work in groups of two. Some settled into the oversized "learning stairs," flooded by natural light. Others went outside, their laptops sinking into the grass. A few stayed in the classroom.
But don't call it a classroom.
The bright new Alexandria Area High School has none of the cell-like boxes — or dark locker-lined hallways — that still dominate many older schools. Here, walls move. Screens shift. There are no desks, just small tables that fold and wheel away.
This $73.2 million high school, recently heralded "the Googleplex of Schools" by technology magazine Fast Company, reflects a broader shift in education and is already becoming a template. Students have given more than 50 tours of the place — 40 of them to officials and teachers from other school districts. Looking to build one high school and renovate another, St. Cloud folks stopped by, then hired the same architects.
"People all over the country are rethinking the experience of high school," said John Pfluger, design principal with Cuningham Group, the Minneapolis architectural firm behind the school. Their goal is "to make education less lecture-driven and more project and activity-based.
"And I think that's starting to show up in the buildings we're designing."
It is the students' first year in this 280,000-square-foot school, where studies are divided into "academies" and teachers shift between high-tech classrooms, their walls made of glass. Pfluger refers to these rooms as "learning spaces," "studios" or even "classroom-like spaces."
But teachers still call them classrooms, said teacher Kelly Hilbrands, laughing.
Hilbrands, who teaches the psychology class, also appreciates having spaces to learn outside those rooms, after years with little more than a narrow hallway. "All the flexible spacing allows discussion to be a little more open and free-flowing," Hilbrands said. "Being resigned to a classroom is prohibitive, in a way, for some students."
'Cells and bells'
Two miles from the new high school, with its stately, glass-walled atrium, the flat Jefferson High School sits in stark contrast. But not for long. On a recent afternoon, a few workers readied the building for demolition, wrapping its insides in plastic to contain asbestos.
Built in the late 1950s, the school exemplifies the "cells and bells" architecture copied throughout the 20th century. Few windows interrupt the building's red brick. Narrow, linoleum hallways lead to square classrooms where desks faced the front.
In 2011, voters gave their OK to sell $65 million in bonds to build a new school — on an old farmstead on the southeast edge of town, near one sign touting 48 acres for sale and another, handwritten, advertising wood duck boxes. Donations and grants covered $5.5 million of the new school's cost.
Students, teachers and business owners worked with architects on the design, suggesting that a commons area connect the schools' wings and that the manufacturing shop stand in the school's center, rather than being hidden in the back. That process "got lots of buy-in and lots of really good ideas to the surface, quickly," said Dr. Dean Anderson, chairman of the school board.
Students picked out furniture, praising chairs that twist and rejecting white tables.
"We sat in chairs and said, no, not this one," said Courtney Bitzan, 18, a senior. The architects listened, she added.
Elizabeth Neilson, a language arts teacher at Apollo High School in St. Cloud, visited Alexandria's new digs as part of a task force weighing her district's buildings. She appreciated the school's light, art facilities and auditorium. But she fell in love with the furniture. In her classroom, one poetry unit, in particular, is "a very clunky activity," that involves dragging heavy indestructible desks, she said.
"The idea of being able to change up my classroom for different learning experiences and different learning groupings," she said, "it blew my mind."
Giving up ownership
Teachers don't own these classrooms. Instead, they share offices — or, according to the lingo, "collaboration spaces" — some teaching in one room, then another in the course of a day.
That setup is uncommon, said Steve Shiver, president of the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education. Some districts that his Seattle firm works with intend to gather teachers in offices, he said. But, after teachers push back, "they don't do it."
Neilson would have "a very, very hard time not having my own classroom space," she said by phone. Much of a teacher's work is tied to "what you have in your classroom, what you have on your walls," she said, including books and colorful posters.
At Alexandria, the switch also had a hiccup: Students couldn't find their teachers. So they affixed a list of names to each office window. Now, Bitzan said, teachers are much easier to locate.
"We threw a lot of new changes at teachers and students," Principal Chad Duwenhoegger said. Along with the new building, they switched to a block schedule, moved to a later start time and introduced the academies, or smaller learning communities.
All the changes were "overwhelming," Hilbrands said. But "teachers have done a fantastic job of adjusting."
She has appreciated that the offices, which group teachers from disparate disciplines, get them talking about lesson plans, continuing education and how to deal with a troubled kid.
Alexandria leaders will eye test scores and graduation rates to see whether the new designs help students, Duwenhoegger said. "I want fewer Ds," he said. "To me, a D is a student who's not engaged, who's just getting through the hoop."
Smarter schools like Alexandria's lift all types of learners, not just ones who thrive in lectures, Shiver said.
But while studies have shown that natural light boosts performance, he said, measuring design's effects is challenging. Students grow older and change teachers, Shiver said. When they switch to a new building, the whole group goes. "That's the variable that makes it difficult to do a comprehensive study that says, most definitely, it's the building."