Elegant Innovation: Lessons from Urban School Design, Part Two
In part one I examined the hidden assets literally built in to many urban schools, particularly those built pre-WWII, and why it may be worth reusing and repurposing these architectural treasures. In this post, I’ll review how urban school systems have long been incubators for important innovations, particularly over the last two decades. Inner cities are magnets for diversity. They are where recent immigrants and lower wage earners can find a majority of jobs. Urban life offers ease of public transit, walkable distances, abundant services and tight knit communities.
However, with diversity and density comes a unique set of challenges for urban school systems. Despite, or perhaps because of these well-known challenges, many inner city schools evolve important educational innovations that can apply beyond city lines to suburban and rural districts as well. A short list includes:
- Dual-language immersion programs have been around since the 1960s, but recently have become more widespread. Originally developed to help integrate immigrant children into English-language culture by teaching English in their native languages, these programs are now highly sought after to teach English speakers critical foreign languages. These programs originated in urban centers long before they became the domain of exclusive private and suburban schools. With English as the prime language, dual immersion languages may include: Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, Ojibwa, Hebrew and others.
- With a majority of dual working or one-parent households, urban schools emphasis is on early learners. Full-day pre-kindergarten and programs for even younger children is a much emulated model outside of city settings.
- The admirable and health-conscious farm-to-table movement for school lunches was pioneered in the nation’s cities.
- The idea of themed schools, where schools adopt a differentiating academic focus and identity, has been around since Boston Latin School opened in 1635, and includes such iconic schools as New York’s Film Academy School of Performing Arts.
- The Small Schools Movement also originated in the crucible of urban public education as a way to better support at-risk high school students by providing a more nurturing learning environment. The concept has spread throughout the country, sometimes translated into small learning communities within a larger high school.
So far I’ve shared my thoughts on lessons we can all learn from urban facilities and educational programs. Next up, I look forward to your commentary on my Insight about making the most of small school sites. Stay tuned.