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By COURTNEY CAIRNS PASTOR | The Tampa Tribune
Published: August 25, 2010
North Tampa school design focuses on students
Staff photo by CLIFF McBRIDE
LAKE MAGDALENE – Walking down the elementary wing at Hillel School, you might see children perched on stools with Macbooks, curled up on cushions with books, balancing on exercise balls or making a mess in a studio. Not only is that OK with teachers at the private Jewish school, it’s encouraged.
Thanks to donations and fundraisers, the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms were overhauled during the summer to break students and teachers out of isolation and encourage them to work together or separately in hallways, common areas and labs.
The result shakes up the traditional elementary school model where students disappear into classrooms and never interact with their peers or other teachers. It’s an innovative design based on research about how students learn.
Parents and teachers trickled into the wing this week, the day before school started, all with the same reaction to the makeover: “Amazing.” A little boy shouted to Head of School Amy Wasser, “I get to work here.”
The windows are bigger, and glass doors leading outside show off Hillel’s playground and shady trees. Glass doors also link the classrooms to the hallway, allowing light into what had been a dim corridor and letting teachers keep an eye on students working at laptop stations in the hall.
The old computer lab is gone. In its place is the “Mercaz” � Hebrew for “center” � where laptops and iPads dot desks and book carousels fill the corners. A new exit to the library takes children out under a pergola and eventually will have patio furniture where they can read or use the wireless connection to browse the Internet.
One wall in the Mercaz has an interactive Smart Board; another has a projector and screen, both of which can be hooked to computers so teachers can project lessons from their computers onto the wall.
A spare classroom will become a video conferencing space, where Wasser hopes her students will be able to talk in real time with schools around the world.
Losing the computer lab was no big deal, said Michael Gamson, Hillel’s technology director. Modern schools must integrate technology into all lessons rather than send students to a separate class.
“We want teaching computers to be like oxygen or pencils,” Gamson said. “You don’t have a pencil class.”
The changes came about through a Hillel parent whose background merges design and school reform. Architect Prakash Nair co-founded Fielding Nair International, which bases its school plans on educational research. Its projects span five continents.
Nair donated his time and designs to Hillel, and Hillel raised money for the construction and furnishings. The bill came to less than $200,000, Wasser said.
Before the renovation, Nair said, Hillel was set up like most other schools nationwide where education is done “to” students instead of involving them as participants. Its elementary wing had a long hallway flanked with classrooms where students stayed for most of the day.
The structural changes offer the possibility of shaking up how teachers teach and students learn, Nair said.
Some classrooms have partitions teachers can open if they want to teach two classes together. They can also go to the Mercaz for joint lessons or to two studios in the back, which offer a room for art and other hands-on projects, along with a math and science lab.
Almost all of the furniture and storage carts are wheeled or lightweight enough to move, Wasser said. So teachers can take what they need, and students can arrange themselves to work individually, in small groups or large classes.
Students benefit from interacting with several teachers, because different teachers have different strengths and personalities, Nair said. Lessons involving other classrooms also benefit the students because it gets them used to working with children of various ages � a handy skill in the working world, where people are not segregated by age.
A teacher-only classroom has desks where the teachers will gather to plan lessons or get advice about how to deal with students. Teachers need the chance to learn from each other, Nair said.
The glass doors and bigger windows let light flood in, which is about more than aesthetics. Gazing out the window isn’t a distraction, Nair said. Seeing nature stimulates students’ brains, he said.
Nair worked with Hillel in 2008 to transform its primary classrooms � work that included replacing tiny windows with sliding-glass doors. At first, Wasser worried the views would cause the children to zone out, but that didn’t happen.
She had a similar concern this time when Nair brought in exercise balls for students to sit on, saying it would help them focus while building strength in their spines. Wasser wondered if students would play with them instead but was surprised on an orientation day to see boys sitting calmly as they watched a movie.
Fourth-grade teacher Randie Specter said she loved the flexibility of the space and the opportunities the upgrades brought.
Now, teachers will have the chance to work more closely with one another, bounce ideas off their colleagues and learn more about their students from what others observe. Her old classroom had a chalkboard; now she can use the wing’s Smart Board, where she can “write” on it with her fingers and save her lessons to her computer or jump on to the Internet.
The fresh changes and blue, yellow, orange and green color scheme set a cheerful tone as the new school year starts.
“It’s just so happy,” Specter said.
Reporter Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at (727) 451-2343.
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