CHAPPAQUA – Education reform traditionally has been about curriculum or teacher training, in a sense adding new furniture to an old, familiarbuilding. Futurists now think education reform should go further: Rethink the classroom itself if you want to change how children learn in today’s highly specialized and technological world. Horace Greeley is among the first public high schools in the country to incorporate such a nontraditional classroom space, dubbed the “iLab” and modeled on similar learning centers at Harvard and MIT. Looking more like a computer store, a high-end coffee shop or a college center than a high school lab, the new space has been booked solid by Greeley teachers since it officially opened Feb. 4. “We tried to answer the question, ‘How could time, space and technology work in the future?'” said Chappaqua schools Superintendent Lyn McKay. The iLab project began nearly three years ago when the district was looking at the increasing need to incorporate technology into learning. Robert Rhodes, Greeley’s principal, said colleges and businesses are looking for specific skills in graduating high schoolers, including the ability to work in groups, work independently and be able to wade through complex problems.
Chappaqua, in partnership with The Chappaqua School Foundation, hired Fielding Nair International, a design and consultant firm that has built an international reputation for innovative school buildings. KG&D of Mount Kisco were the local architects, who began work last spring on a project that cost between $700,000 and $800,000, mostly paid for with a generous grant from the school foundation, some state aid building money and the district’s capital fund balance for renovation. They took four classrooms and a hallway in the center of Greeley and knocked down the walls, enlarged the windows and created smaller glassed-in spaces for discussion rooms, leaving most of the 4,000-square-foot space open. Long counters, small tables, comfortable chairs, hassocks, window ledges and giant beanbags encourage students to work in ways they find comfortable. “This is bigger than just the technology,” said Jerry Cresci, technology director for Scarsdale schools, after a May 6 tour. “We’re looking at a vision of what the future of education will be … I think technology will transform what learning and teaching could look like in the future.” The ceiling was designed to channel noise away. Walls and windows were designed to be written on. Smaller rooms have electronic and moveable writing boards. Larger screens were hung in the main spaces for discussions and long-distance learning. “The kids say this is like Starbucks or what they think a typical university space looks like,” said Chris Louth, staff developer and one of the minds behind the iLab. “It really seems to feed more adult collaboration. “Here, not only do you have the teacher walking around, the students can walk around and interact with everybody else, including other classes,” she said. The concept has piqued the interest of other districts. Ken Mitchell, superintendent for South Orangetown schools, said his district sent a team to visit the set-up at MIT and is considering something on their own.
Colin Dunn and Arielle Smith, both 17-year-old juniors, said their U.S. history and literature class often meets in the iLab, where they can segregate themselves by project and work at the small tables or draw lists on the conference room walls. “It’s very cool, very innovative,” Dunn said. “I like the feel you get; it’s very technological.
It looks like an Apple store.” Before iLab, students would end up working in the hallways, the two said. “This iLab makes it really, really easy to work together in partnerships,” Smith said.
Chappaqua’s new space is attracting attention. Besides the Scarsdale officials, the district has hosted groups from Israel and Winnetonka, Wisconsin.
McKay said the district is looking at ways to create similar spaces in other buildings, and may extend the iLab to an outdoor patio. Right now, only three teachers at a time can book the space.
Daniel Factor and Micaela Rubin, 16-year-old juniors, praised the iLab and said they appreciated being able to use it. “There’s been a lot of talk nationally about reforming the educational system and going away from lectures and testing practices, and this is a great way of advancing that,” Factor said. “I think (the iLab) may work very well to change the way we learn here.”
But, he said, many of the classes scheduled into the space are honors programs or their equivalent, and students not enrolled in those programs don’t get as much time. Rubin said the fact that the entire iLab is geared to technology makes sense, but she wanted to put in a good word for paper. The iLab is not the library, and she finds herself moving between the two rooms.
“We shouldn’t really be using books but, for the research-type projects, books are the things that have the information,” she said. Scarsdale Superintendent Michael McGill — a Greeley graduate — was on the May 6 tour. His district has a similar collaborative setup for students and staff but without the space.
“It’s certainly not something that lots of schools have, it’s more going on with universities, but it’s leading edge,” McGill said. “Not as large or grand, but the way that the kids were interacting with each other and the way they were using the space felt very similar to what we saw at MIT and Harvard.”