Think Tank Think Tank



Disruption in Instructional Design

Don’t try to change faster; research shows that changing smaller can produce better results.

Nicholas Woodard, AIA, LEED AP
Robin Randall, AIA, ALEP, LEED AP BD+C

How can architects support disadvantaged communities and their schools? What are effective architectural responses in the educational sector to the challenges of rebuilding these communities?

Schools serving disadvantaged families are not only education centers, but also community centers that provide a range of social support functions and serve as a form of community expression. There are cost-effective strategies available to design professionals to serve these communities. The key is to think small.

Disinvestment in public school systems is a significant challenge in K-12 education. It affects student resources and facilities and negatively impacts student achievement. Lisette Partelow of The Center for American Progress writes:

“Poor school conditions, for instance, can have negative effects on student learning. Research indicates that poor air quality or lighting, uncomfortable temperatures, and excessive noise can all impede student learning. A study of New York City middle schools found that, among other aspects of the physical and social environments, the building condition was a contributing factor to academic performance.”1

This problem isn’t limited to K-12 education. The skyrocketing cost of higher education is creating a massive divide between those who can afford a degree and those who can’t. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in the Harvard Business Review,

"At the same time, universities tend to increase rather than decrease inequality.... And as Anthony Jack noted in a recent book, even when elite universities focus on enrolling minorities, they tend to prioritize what he calls the “privileged poor,” such as Black or Hispanic people from higher socio-economic status. The fundamental question we see is this: If a university claims to be a top educational institution, shouldn’t it admit the people with the lowest test scores, and turn them into the leader of tomorrow?"2

Ultimately, both issues stem from lack of access, which tells us that rebalancing education means equalizing access to resources.

Laraway School, completed in 2018 in Joliet, Illinois, is in a district where nearly 98% of the students are low-income. It was designed in response to district requirements that the new preK-8 facility be built for half the budget of similar nearby schools. This required multiple budget management strategies.

First, the building’s simple massing is characterized by a concise rectangular volume opened with courtyard spaces to provide views to the surrounding community and to admit daylight to classrooms and circulation spaces while reducing glare. Second, in response to market demands, the construction type was revised from precast concrete to masonry to avoid delivery premiums and maintain budget goals. Lastly, green metal panels at window jambs reduce the cost of masonry wall construction and provide a colorful reference to local agrarian traditions.

Internally, circulation routes separate younger and older students into classroom clusters described as “neighborhoods.” Additionally, expanded lobbies and corridors incorporate spaces that encourage learning beyond the classroom. These simple organizing strategies have reduced bullying between grades and provided a safe, supportive learning environment for students.

An additional reference to the local context is a stone feature wall that traverses the public circulation system. This “quarry wall” acknowledges Joliet’s limestone quarrying history and fosters a sense of belonging in a shared community history. It is a modest but impactful design feature that connects the school to the community, signals that the community values student learning, and promotes community reinvestment.

Galesburg, Illinois, another community experiencing declining student enrollment, closed and consolidated several district schools. Grades 7 through 9 relocated to the existing high school to join grades 10 through 12 in a single facility. As at Laraway, upper and lower grades occupy separate circulation spaces, classrooms, and, in this case, even cafeteria space. This is a low-cost organizing strategy with a significant impact on the student experience. Additionally, interior finishes cost-effectively reference Galesburg’s local railway history and connect the school to the cultural context to strengthen community pride.

With a focus on attainable, cost-effective design strategies, Laraway School and Galesburg High School light a path for design professionals serving disadvantaged communities. The schools provide a strong learning environment and overall community support, while also serving as a source of regional pride. They demonstrate that thoughtful, affordable design can make a difference in schools for students, teachers, and the wider community.

Nicholas Woodard, AIA, LEED AP is a licensed architect with Legat Architects in Moline, IL. He has experience designing schools across the Midwest. He is looking forward to traveling in a post-pandemic world.

Robin Randall, AIA, ALEP, LEED AP BD+C is the Director of K-12 Education at Legat Architects. She originated the Think Tank in 2014 to encourage disruptive design by intellectual explorations with and for our clients and projects. She lives in Clarendon Hills, IL with her husband.

1. Lisette Partelow, Fixing Chronic Disinvestment in K-12 Schools, Center for American Progress

2. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz, 6 Reasons Why Higher Education Needs to Be Disrupted, Harvard Business Review