If Elementary School is all about separation from home, and High School is all about looking forward to College, what exactly is Middle School?
Success Academy Charter Schools is a high-performing charter school network in New York City, operating in the public school system, currently with 24 elementary schools, 7 middle schools and 1 high school. Founded and run by Eva Moskowitz the schools outperform nearly every NYC Public School as well as 95%-99% of the schools in NY State. And that is with a preponderance of disadvantaged students chosen by lottery. It is an achievement nothing short of remarkable.
Having already tackled the High School design we were next tasked to redesign the Middle Schools. Unlike the High School, of which there was only one, the Middle Schools already existed in 7 locations raising the ever-present question of what to do with the current schools when the new designs are rolled out. It’s the problem that all franchises face, but with only 7 ‘old designs’ eventually there will be visual consistency across the entire level.
The question, of course, is what characterizes the world between Elementary School and High School? Confusion? Longing for home and fear of growing up? Gender and sexual attraction questions? Puberty and its discontents?
All of the above, but none of these are the stuff of 3D visual branding.
What we finally came to understand was that as a transition from Elementary School to High School, Middle School is a transition from Exuberance to Order, metaphorically from Abstract Expressionism to Joseph Albers, from Discipline to Self-generated Order.
The idea of “Ordered Exuberance” or “Structured Enthusiasm” became a way to define the real problem (and in fact the seminal problem of all school spaces): how to structure environmental information in a learning space. Once the problems of physical comfort are resolved, and given the fixed nature of urban schools and their inherent lack of attachment to natural exterior spaces, the design of the classroom are paramount in learning. Structuring information is a factor in the complexity of the space and the level of individuation the classroom allows, two factors shown to affect classroom learning.
Studying a de Kooning and a Joseph Albers we began to look for the middle ground in a transition from apparent disorder to almost maniacal order: Mondrian was the perfect model for structuring information with an underlying sense of childlike play. Though it may seem a literal leap Mondrian, the Dutch painter who lived the last part of his life in NYC, the reductivist logician who finally found the elemental order of all things visual, became the medium to solve a educational problem.
Information is not just lesson plans, or class jobs or the calendar or math tables, but it does have a rather mundane module; letter sized printer paper. Based on that and the size of cork material and the height of bookcases and the highest point a teacher can reach, and the size of doors we devised a modular system of structured information that could, at the same time, adapt to the inevitable layers of switches, conduits, clocks, thermostats, phones, boxes, lights and myriad other leftover or functioning wall mounted elements. NYC schoolrooms are not ‘tabula rasa’s or perfect white galleries but disorganized, layered, haphazard and chaotic surfaces in rooms that are never clean perfect rectangles. School buildings come in various sizes shapes and vintages, from elegant turn of the century civic buildings to 1970’s asbestos-filled examples of the worst architectural period in memory.
Finally, there was the question of where, outside the classroom, the information was appropriate and useful, and how to distinguish Success Academy from the adjacent non-Success schools (all Charter Schools “co-locate” with other public schools and now it is normal to see 4 or 5 different schools occupying a single school building).
Middle school students, for the first time in their educational careers, change classrooms for each class. The portal to the room becomes an important orientation point and announcement of what is going on inside. Our decision to keep the hallway walls cleaner but gather information at the classroom portal reinforces this change in student mobility. While the information zone may be limited to the portal, the sense of having entered a Success Academy school had to define an entire floor area. Floors in Elementary Schools are covered in words, and the Middle School floor has a built in math puzzle. Rather than simply change flooring colors (the walls are often glazed blocks that can’t be re-colored) we included the color of the non-Success flooring and created a striped black and white floor, and arranged those stripes in a Fibonacci series to keep the students thinking.
The new Success Academy Middle Schools are, as one principal put it “this is what Dalton might look like if they were in this building”. Rather than shrink from the feeling of deliberate high design the school proudly embraces the new identity as ennobling and part of the educational model.
Starting with the High School, following that with the Middle School it follows that we are currently working on the Elementary Schools. This may seem a reversal of a logical rollout of school design, but turns out to be the perfect sequence. The High School had no other SA school designs to compete with. The network is only 8 years old and the first class of High School Scholars arrived at the only High School in the system. It was an exit strategy through which all students would be funneled.
Moving ‘backward’ through the grades, as a designer, works for a few reasons. The later grades are closer to our own ages and memories (this is especially so for staff who are only a decade out of High School, and less so for Biber who might as well have gone to school during the Lincoln administration). The later grades are more self-organized, more sophisticated, more easily focused on environmental elements, and less reliant on environmental information than, say, Elementary School Scholars. Based on the sheer amount of environmental information on display in a typical classroom the Elementary School easily tops the list.