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By COURTNEY CAIRNS PASTOR, The Tampa Tribune
Published: August 27, 2008
LAKE MAGDALENE – Hillel School sits on sprawling grounds, shaded with oak trees and featuring fields and peaceful pockets of green.
Visitors and students barely noticed.
Most of the outdoors was limited to physical education. A breezeway by the entrance opened up to a courtyard, but it was a pass-through, not a place to linger.
Although the windows in the elementary school classrooms faced the courtyard, they were too small to let in light and too high for children to have a view.
When students returned to the private Jewish school last week, they discovered light-filled classrooms, places to play and cozy study nooks. Teachers are planning time for outdoor learning, and parents may find themselves staying at Hillel to chat rather than simply dropping off their children and driving away.
Subtle changes at Hillel could bring big improvements to how students learn.
Prakash Nair, a Hillel parent and internationally acclaimed school designer, approached school officials last year with an unusual donation. He wanted to develop a plan for Hillel that brought its building and outdoor space in line with its educational mission.
“I’m doing this as a parent volunteer,” he said.
Nair co-founded Fielding Nair International, a firm that puts learning as the focus of school planning. It examines different ways students learn and teachers teach and creates renovation or new school designs that support those methods.
At Hillel, that included giving the school an entrance that defined its community mission, creating hubs for parents and students to gather, integrating the indoors and outdoors and making overlooked spots such as hallways more stimulating.
“We have this gorgeous campus, and we thought we weren’t getting enough out of it,” said Head of School Amy Wasser.
Fielding Nair has worked in 26 countries, including the United States. Though much of its work involves new construction, smaller-scale renovation projects can benefit students. Hillel made changes within its budget that will go a long way, Nair said.
The school’s board and Parent-Teacher Organization funded some of the improvements. Wasser hopes to make more of the changes next year, such as installing a shaded pavilion outside and establishing an outdoor music space. Eventually she would like to raise money for a new building for fine arts and recreation and work with Nair on its design.
Wasser also had her teachers reading books last summer that explored tying creativity to learning and breaking from traditional lectures. Students should not only hear information in class – but they also should “own” it, Wasser said.
“Everything we’re doing is moving to open-minded, higher-level, critical ways of thinking and using the campus to go along with that,” she said.
The first change was personalizing the main office. A school needs a “local signature,” Nair said, that makes students feel special and communicates its role in the community. Hillel has strong Jewish values, but its first impression was as generic as a doctor’s office.
Now the school has a quote from scholar, theologian and school namesake Rabbi Hillel circling the lobby. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” the quote reads, “If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Next to the office, a breezeway linked the parking lot to the courtyard but didn’t invite anyone to linger.
Nair suggested warming the entry with student art and creating a cafe feel with small groupings of tables and chairs. Hillel replaced the institutional flooring with more distinctive tile, including a center diamond with the school’s name. Wasser hung student artwork on the wall and brought in seating.
The changes will encourage parents to socialize and get more involved with the school. Classes also can use the tables for students to work in small groups outside of their regular rooms.
A wooden bench around an oak tree in the school courtyard provides a retreat. Nearby, knee-high, plastic chess pieces perch on a large board, combining outdoor activity with the thoughtful analysis chess requires. Middle school math teacher Burl Peters transformed a bland walkway by painting a giant mural of a flag and hearts. The school will be raising money this year for heart disease, Wasser said, and the mural ties into that.
Indoors, a hallway is now another spot for interaction. Student projects on the wall warm an institutional space. Hillel also installed a Smart Board, an interactive board with features of an overhead projector and dry-erase board, in a hall, allowing teachers to bring students there for group lessons.
Wasser also had a deck built behind the middle school building that will prompt students to spill out of their study lounge and work outside.
The younger children have outdoor access, too. The old narrow windows in a kindergarten and first-grade classroom are gone, replaced with sliding glass doors.
An outdoors connection can spark creativity as children explore the world, Nair said. They leave air-conditioned classrooms and see for themselves lessons about weather and the environment. Fresh air stimulates minds. Even occasionally gazing outside is helpful. Nair said it gives tired eyes a break and rejuvenates students rather than distracting them.
Kindergarten teacher Ally Heymann, whose room benefited from the sliding glass doors, said she planned to open the doors and bring her children onto the patio to read together.
“This is amazing,” Heymann said. “I’m looking forward to using the outdoor space.”
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