DPS Redesigning ‘70s-Era Open Classrooms

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The Fonz. Troll dolls. Pet Rocks. Flower Power. Videos of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

No matter the decade, fads and trends tend to roar into culture at a moments notice, before quickly disappearing a few years ” or just months ” later.

Unless, of course, that fad or trend was built into something ” say, a school.

During the late 1960s and early 70s, national education leaders pushed for an innovative school design called Open Plan Classrooms, which was built around the concept of a school without walls where teachers could more fluidly work together on group activities and projects. In Denver Public Schools (DPS), ten schools were designed and built with some variation of the Open Plan Classroom design.

One school, Cheltenham Elementary, which was built in 1970, contains three larger ˜Pod structures that keep students in similar grades in the same open space, with classrooms separated only by large partitions.

Centennial, built in 1976, has a long hallway facing into multiple sets of classrooms across half of the campus.

The entire world is right there, and theres no barrier, said Cait Partyka, a K/1 teacher at Centennial. Sometimes, its great to see other classrooms and be able to easily communicate with them. But at the same time, there is no great way to shut off that communication when my students need to concentrate, because there are no walls and no doors.

The concept, which was a big immediate hit for fostering deeper collaboration between teachers and students, quickly lost popularity as classrooms settled into the space and discovered an unforeseen distraction: the noise from neighboring classrooms and hallways.

I pull small groups throughout the day to work on reading, and we definitely need that quiet space to learn, said Spanish Reading Interventionist Liz Piper, a teacher at Cheltenham Elementary School. Anytime that they get distracted by other students who are heading to another class or lining up for lunch, there is very little work that actually gets done.

I always feel bad, and I am always saying ˜Shh, we need to be respectful, said Melissa Charl, a first grade teacher at Cheltenham. Its just very hard to keep 26 six-year-olds at a whisper level all day long.

Thanks to Denver voters and their approval of the 2012 Bond, nine DPS schools with the Open Plan Classroom architecture will get a retrofit redesign, featuring permanent walls to cut down on noise and distractions.

At schools with the ˜Pod design, the retrofit will be more extensive, featuring separated hallways as well as new quiet rooms for small group learning, meetings and breakout discussion.

Piper believes the redesign will have an immediate impact on student learning.

Those distractions wont be there, and I think our instruction will have a much greater impact, she said.

Construction at seven of the nine schools receiving the Open Plan Classroom redesign is slated to begin as early as this summer. Those schools include Samuels, Centennial, Kaiser, Eagleton, Southmoor and Cheltenham.

DPS already began the Open Plan Classroom retrofit on the other two schools (Escuela Valdez and Bromwell) in Fall 2013, coupling construction with more extensive renovation and redesign efforts happening at both campuses throughout the school year. Students at both schools have temporarily relocated for the 2014-15 school year at other DPS campuses.

Funds from the voter-approved 2012 DPS Bond will pay for all the Open Plan Classroom redesign projects.

Teachers are confident that their new walls will play no impact on the central idea behind the Open Plan Classroom ” collaboration ” one of DPSs Shared Core Values.

We dont want to be closed off, thats not our intent, said Partyka. This is about a space thats quiet, peaceful and calming, which I dont feel we have right now. [The new classrooms] will be space within the school that feels like ours, but we can still open up to other teachers, students and classrooms.

One other school featuring the Open Plan Classroom design, Swansea, will couple its construction costs with a larger renovation effort paid for by CDOT as a result of additional work associated with changes to Interstate 70.

Another school ” Holm ” has had some doors added to try and alleviate some noise and distractions. The school’s principal, Jim Metcalfe, said he is hoping a full open classroom retrofit redesign will be included in a future DPS Bond.