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Reimagining the Student Learning Environment in the 21st Century

By Michael Ginalski

Kids can learn anywhere. COVID proved it!

While COVID-19 devastated the world in many ways, the pandemic also provided great opportunity for change and provided the impetus to rethink what the 21st century learning environment can look like. Prior to the pandemic, there had been a growing movement towards creating more flexible classroom spaces in K-12 schools. That has intensified due to COVID. Educators are calling for greater attention and resources to be devoted to creating classroom spaces that model the 21st century work environment. This means the creation of “real world” learning environments, collaborative spaces, and accessible technology geared to facilitate creativity and collaboration to help students develop skills necessary in the world of work today. At Welliver, we are currently assisting districts large and small in the creation of these spaces.

Previous generations grew up in schools where classrooms looked the same. Rows of seats facing the front of the room, teacher up front with 100% of learning being teacher led which for centuries supported the notion that teachers relay knowledge to students. This transitional model worked for hundreds of years in this country but as we have seen, the world is changing rapidly because of technology and this includes the classrooms for today … and tomorrow.

A key feature of 21st century design is flexibility. The ability to be versatile within a classroom enables students to perform real world problem solving, actively conduct experiments, and be able to gather in groups to collectively process information. Teachers meanwhile facilitate and guide activities serving as a form of air traffic controller in assisting students. 21st century classrooms generally include the following:

  • Flex seating options
  • Learner centered spaces
  • Classroom cribs
  • “Starbucking” the classroom
  • Next gen classroom design
  • Active learning environments

Welliver is working with the three largest districts in the Southern Tier, overseeing planning and construction of their major facilities projects. The leaders in each district have demonstrated the progressive leadership necessary to move these districts forward in the creation of state-of-the-art 21st century environments. In the Horseheads Central School District, Elmira City School District, and the Corning-Painted Post Area School District, planning and construction is underway in the creation of these spaces.

Elmira City School District Superintendent Mrs. Hillary Austin has led the district through a dramatic turnaround and in her time in Elmira has led the district through multiple facilities projects. In the current $80M+ project, Mrs. Austin worked with teachers and administrators in the creation of outdoor classrooms at three of the district’s elementary schools. As a result of COVID, teachers were forced to use every inch of space because of the need to socially distance. This included the use of courtyards. Teachers came to greatly appreciate these spaces and this was the driver in the creation of these outdoor classrooms. The courtyards will have artificial turf, flex seating, and full technology capability. At one of the schools, this will also include a stage with seating for plays and performances. Mrs. Austin said, “in using every bit of space, we learned that students can learn anywhere.”

In the Horseheads Central School District, Superintendent Dr. Thomas Douglas has led the district through a dramatic facilities renaissance completely changing the face of that district after many years of minimal updates and changes. Voters recently approved a $122M project which is the second $100M+ project to be approved in that district. Horseheads definitely is attempting to address the needs of today’s students through the creation of flexible spaces. The multi-media library center literally has become the virtual hub of the entire high school. This was planned to provide multiple opportunities in a safe and secure setting for students and staff to be able to learn from each other in either large group or small teams style settings in or outside of the actual structure in the high school. This is because two major courtyards were developed with external classroom seating and space for students to explore learning in a natural, comfortable, and safe environment. Because this environment is also surrounded on all sides, it provides the entire school an opportunity for flexibility and freedom of movement for the students who attend Horseheads High School. This certainly has helped students to feel a more post-secondary education experience as the district prepares them to head out to the world of college instruction, work life, and/or military service. Dr. Douglas states, “the project as a whole has led to key developments in the abilities and skills of 21st century learners. Specifically, our capital construction project has provided greater flexibility and future prospects of allowing our students to be engaged in a more active and cohesive educational environment both in school and throughout our extracurricular programming. This is never more important than now coming through a pandemic in recent years as our students have the ability to experience a variety of realities that other local school districts have in the successes of this construction and re-envision meant of the entire Horseheads Central School District.”

The Corning-Painted Post (CPP) Area School District has experienced that same ‘facilities renaissance’ in the last 15 years as Horseheads, essentially remaking the entire school district. Superintendent Michelle Caulfield, who was involved in every aspect of those efforts, is currently leading the district through an $88M project. Corning’s approach in the creation of 21st century spaces reflects Ms. Caulfield’s strengths and background in the area of program development. A major component is the creation of the state-of-the-art greenhouse which serves as a science lab for all four core sciences. This real world science environment not only includes all elements of 21st century learning spaces and state-of-the-art equipment, but a community connection as well – the plants and seeds grown in the greenhouse go directly to local food pantries for community gardens. This space is ultimately a science lab which hundreds of students work in daily that also serves the community. In addition, Corning is also constructing multi-purpose rooms at three of their elementary schools. Ms. Caulfield states, “CPP has never had spaces besides playgrounds that allow for play, creativity, or invention. These spaces will be used to work on areas outside of classroom academics such as collaborative projects, breakout rooms, or physical education activities.”

There is growing dialogue in schools regarding the interaction of physical space, teaching, and learning in a fervor not experienced previously. Superintendent Caulfield said it best in terms of creating flexible space in the 21st century learning environment – “These spaces need to evolve and change with student and teacher needs and ideas. Space is valuable and powerful when it is not locked into a specific need with a specific schedule.”

Mike joins Welliver as our K12 Communication Liaison after 33 years working in the K12 education sector. He brings a comprehensive understanding and direct exposure to all of the issues facing public education today. In his 13 years as the Superintendent in Corning-Painted Post (CPP) Area School District, Mike led the district through four successful referendums which led to $260M in new construction from 2010-2020. Mike bridges the gap between Welliver’s construction management teams and K12 school district superintendents, school boards, and facility directors. He provides expertise and guidance, as well as helps districts carry out capital improvement initiatives involving pre-referendum voting, budget management, community outreach, and buildings and grounds personnel. Mike can be reached at [email protected].