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Design Thought Leader

Innovative School Designs Support 21st Century Learning

In this second of a series on K-12 design, Barbara Crum, Principal and Market Sector Leader for K-12 at Perkins+Will, discusses the concept of project-based learning and how it was incorporated into the design of Coahulla Creek High School in Dalton, Georgia.

Most of us went to high schools with the same design: long corridors lined with square or rectangular-shaped classrooms. On the rare occasions we may have collaborated with fellow students on a project, we had to drag bulky desks around to fit in a circle so we could face each other. We also learned pretty much in just one way — by having a teacher stand in front of the room and lecture us, occasionally making notes on a chalkboard.

Coahulla Creek High School opened in August 2011 with an emphasis on experiential learning. Its design supports that concept.

In addition to education focusing more on collaboration with classmates now, the thought in many forward-thinking schools centers around project-based learning — integrating the curriculum and making the learning more experiential.

An innovative school design goes a long way to facilitating this type of learning. At Perkins+Will we designed the new Coahulla Creek High School in Dalton, Georgia to incorporate the latest thinking with regards to school design and how education will be delivered in the 21st Century.

Classrooms can be reconfigured and subdivided as needed. Every classroom can be opened up into its own 4,000-square-foot project lab space.

Programmed with school administrators, faculty, students and the local community, the design addresses the shift towards project-based, hands-on learning with generous amounts of flexible space that allow for a more dynamic educational experience.

Coahulla Creek High School opened in August 2011 and this year has more than 900 students in the school, which is designed for up to 1200. The 260,000-square foot building is divided into three levels of class­rooms that each open onto their own 4,000-square-foot project lab space in support of their project-based curriculum.

The cafeteria and library are integrated to create an atmosphere like the combination bookstore/coffee shop where students like to gather to study and socialize.

Classrooms open onto this flexible space, which is configured with power, Internet access, smart boards and white boards to support multiple learning styles, collaborative learning and/or independent study.

This lab space is designed so that it can easily be reconfigured and subdivided into individual classroom space if and when curriculum and teaching methodologies change. The depth of the lab is the depth of a classroom plus the corridor, allowing these labs to be flexible in envisioned uses and in size configurations.

Students may never have their own Starbucks in school but this design acknowledges the nature of today’s student by arranging the cafeteria and library to operate as one integrated space, similar to the ubiquitous coffee shop/ bookstore that is frequented by students and study groups everywhere.

The core educational spaces are supplemented by an arts program that will include a black box theatre and outdoor art patios, as well as a full complement of athletic spaces that fit within the natural topography of the site. Sustainable features such as the use of natural daylight, bio-retention gardens and a green roof will also be utilized to enhance the students’ experience.

The school’s motto is High Touch, High Tech, High Expectations. The design of the Coahulla Creek High School is an integral part of its efforts to build expertise in designing rich inquiry-based experiences for students to work through in groups to effectively link common core standards, academic skills and new learning.


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