In the fall of 2009 a new school for special children opened in Sayreville, New Jersey. Constructed by the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission and funded by the Middlesex County Improvement Authority along with the vision of the County Freeholders, the school was a “first of its kind” on several levels.
The school was awarded “LEED Platinum,” the first public school in the country to receive such a designation from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). It was also designed with a new type of educational philosophy, or design consideration for educating children with autism. The physical environment was centered on a “community” thesis. To prove the community based theory we relied on our past success stories. The most important part of any good planning for buildings, especially school facilities is evaluating what we have done as architects in the past and measure their success from the educational results.
Now, five years later, I wanted to reaffirm our original design philosophy and recently visited the school and met with the building’s only principal, Ms. Debbie Nappi. I wanted to see what design ideas have flourished in an effort to gain more knowledge as we continue to explore better ways to design facilities for children with autism.
Over the past ten to fifteen years we have designed more special needs schools than any other firm in the State and perhaps the Country, each design with its own unique style and support structure for the school’s curriculum. The great variety of design considerations all coming from the philosophy of education taught within the various school districts and the differing perspectives from administrators, educators, and teachers. With that said, and after every school project, after every school we have designed for special children I have always looked back at what has worked and the areas that we could improve upon based on our “lessons learned.” For try as we may, we simply are not perfect.
The Center for Lifelong Learning was no exception and presented its own unique challenges during the design phase. The coupling of a LEED Platinum building and the specific obstacles brought on by this tremendous goal with the continued development of an educational language of the built environment in an effort to construct a facility for students whose very nature does not lend itself to readily perceiving and surmising the physical environment around them yet at the same time are very susceptible to it, in terms of light, heat and cold, fresh air and circulation and color. No small feat indeed…and on top of it all, the Center for Lifelong Learning was going to be, by far, our largest school for children with autism with a projected capacity of approximately two hundred students.
In breaking down the design components, the most basic of which stems from one small simple concept, “Community,” we believed we could provide a support structure or language of the physical environment embraced by the teaching staff, supported by the parents and understood by the students.
Originally known as “pods of education,” Ms Nappi pointed out to me that after the opening of the school in 2009 the word “pod” was quickly replaced by the word “community” and rightly so. The four classroom communities or neighborhoods are centered on a courtyard that supports the schools growing gardening curriculum. Each one contains its own supporting centers of education, including six classrooms, a central multi-purpose gathering area, small group areas, toilet facilities and enough storage to accommodate the many accessories required for the specialized and age appropriate curriculum. The communities fully address the unique needs of the multiply disabled, autistic and preschool disabled students as well as having their own distinct color theme. A way finding mechanism we have used in the past with much success. This time we were close, but not 100%, one-hundred percent right. The red community color scheme was simply too strong of a color and not the right hue – it should have been softer or perhaps a different shade altogether. The other three colors; orange, blue and green, were spot on. It is truly amazing how important color plays a part in the disposition of students.
As far as the size of the facility, that posed additional challenges as many of the students have limited mobility and other physical limitations. The community based design allows for a multitude of learning activities without the need for movement of students to different places throughout the school. Conversely, the corridors around the courtyard that connect the four communities are all interconnected and used for physical activity. Students use the corridors for exercise and can “take-a-lap,” as the teachers fondly refer to it, all within the safe confines of the school, independent of weather and without distracting other classes.
The concept of creating fully supported learning communities by designing multi-purpose areas that serve to bond the six classrooms within each section to each other has proven very affective and has fostered the development of a true sense of community, just as envisioned. It was wonderful to witness students of common ages eat, learn, play and even take art together within their own individual and secure world within the school. There is an underlying and subconscious level of support provided by the built environment which as an architect gave me a feeling of complete satisfaction.
In looking back at the original design concept and now witnessing firsthand the reality that is the Center for Lifelong Learning, I have come to the realization that “community based design” and the design elements which buttress it within the school offer a subconscious support methodology where the students have gained a sense of security and a sense of belonging. Equally important is the embrace of the parents of the students who have witnessed first hand this discovery and through their own participation in events at the school create a synergy that clearly transforms the school into the “least restrictive environment for the student.”
The only comparison I can give is the feeling one has of their “old neighborhood.” The fondness and warmth one shares with someone from a similar background. There is a kinship fostered simply from a sense of community and that is the same feeling the students, parents and teachers feel at the school. This level of support, this sense of belonging and security has created an environment where students are flourishing.
All in all, I discovered that we got it right. The acoustics, daylighting and natural light, and circulation were working well and clearly as designed. Even the drop off and pick up of students is a positive experience, but that was a large consideration years before a shovel ever went into the ground. As an architect we must envision the moments, the events that comprise the school day, to the smallest detail. The parents as well completely support the drop off and pick up areas and procedures because they provide an optimum level of safety beyond the original design parameters for their children who sometimes spend upwards of an hour each way on a school bus, an added benefit not particularly known to me previously.
In looking towards the future and future consideration of design for schools for children with autism we must always remember that a “sense of community” is one of the most important underlying factors of which everything else should evolve from and revolve around.
Peter C. Campisano, AIA CID
Partner for the Firm