Chicago Middle School Transforms Older Building into a Collaborative Learning Space

Chicago Middle School Transforms Older Building into a Collaborative Learning Space

Working with MiEN, this top-ranking middle school in Illinois turns an older building into a collaborative learning space.

Taking older structures and turning them into modern, collaborative learning spaces is no easy task, but some schools are facing the project head-on and achieving their goals with some creative thinking, elbow grease, and reliable industry partners.

That’s exactly how Daniel Wright Junior High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., approached the monumental task of transforming a 1970s single-story building into a modern learning environment. After being expanded several times over the years, the school building could no longer accommodate district growth and was in need of a major overhaul.

Limited by its Existing Footprint

A junior high school for students in grades 6-8, Daniel Wright Junior High School is one of Illinois’ top three performing middle schools and the top public institution in that category. The building serves over 750 students—a number that’s projected to grown to 800 by 2023.

With a diverse student population that’s 48% Asian and 10% English as a second language (ESL) learners, the school had reached the point where it needed to physically expand collaborative learning spaces, in order to accommodate growth.

“We were limited by our building’s footprint and unable to increase its size without incurring high costs and having to adding a new turning lane on the street,” said Michelle Blackley, Principal. “It became a Department of Transportation issue.”

As it sought out an affordable solution to its space constraints, the school was also looking for a way to update its classrooms to give them a “modern and collaborative feel,” said Blackley, “versus just traditional rows of classrooms. We started working with our architects to come up with a plan of action.”

Collaborative Learning Space
Collaborative Learning Space

Comfortable, Enjoyable Spaces Wanted

Wanting to make Daniel Wright Junior High School’s learning spaces more comfortable, engaging, and collaborative, the school’s administrators met in person with MiEN representatives in early-2020. When the pandemic emerged and shut down in-person learning, those meetings moved online, but continued to work toward the goal of revamping the school’s physical space.

“I was in isolation at home, trying to pick all the colors and textures that fit our vision,” said Blackley. “I was very thankful that MiEN’s staff was also working remotely and willing to do everything via email or Zoom. They were really good about helping me through that process as I handled it alone from my dining room table.”

Working with MiEN, the middle school converted existing spaces into two large group collaborative learning space classrooms, four small group spaces, a technology help center, and hallway collaborative workspaces. “We also internally restructured our existing library into a media center, a computer lab, and a STEM lab,” Blackley explained.

Blackley is especially proud of her school’s new STEM lab, which supports students who are science, engineering, and math-focused. “We wanted to provide a space that would align to all of the accolades and resources that we have for our kids,” she said. “We have 3D printers and other tools in a space that’s moveable, usable, and collaborative.”

For its classrooms and other collaborative learning space, the school installed furniture that’s easy to move, shift, and rearrange. It allows students to quickly move into small groups, participate in large, Socratic seminars, or have a fishbowl discussion. “Everything rolls and can be moved, shifted, and rearranged,” Blackley explained.

Good Teacher Feedback

Eager to be able to safely use Daniel Wright Junior High School’s new collaborative spaces in the post-COVID educational environment, Blackley said the school has made the necessary adjustments to accommodate a mix of remote and on-campus learning during this difficult period.

“We’ve yet to be able to enjoy the new furniture in the way it was intended,” said Blackley, who added that the new spaces have been more flexible in accommodating social distancing. “Our newer spaces are larger, so our teachers are using them more than they would during a more ‘traditional’ school year.”

The school also purchased pneumatic desks that can be raised, lowered, moved around, and attached to a teacher’s desk. “Teachers have rolling tables that they can move from room to room,” said Blackley. “That’s been a really cool and flexible piece of furniture, and it has allowed teachers to use the new furniture in the way it was intended.”

So far, Blackley said she’s getting good teacher feedback on the renovated spaces, and mainly due to their flexibility and how they let teachers do some quick rearranging to support their individual instructional styles.

Collaborative Learning Space
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