John Shea

by Emily Corbett

“[High]school should be 50% challenge—rigor—uncomfortableness and 50% love—comfort—safety. However, the building should be all of the latter.”  (John Shea)

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Teachers and school administrators are constantly holding this balance of academically challenging students while supporting and nurturing them. What do educational spaces that emphasize and sustain this process look like? How do these spaces reflect the degree to which young people are valued as contributors to and members of our community?

These questions arose out of a recent Friday Morning Coffee we had with John Shea. John is a Portsmouth resident who holds an experienced and worldly perspective from his time teaching and leading schools across the country and the globe. Most recently he served as principal at the International School of Panama and the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. He co-founded High Tech High Charter School in San Diego and locally he has been principal at Spaulding High School in Rochester and upper school director at Berwick Academy.   Over his many years working with a variety of high schools, John has cultivated some clear insights on the most important aspects of planning and designing school facilities.

Comfort and Connectivity 

At the top of the list is the general feel - schools should be a comfortable learning environment. This does not mean they need to be extravagant and pricey, but they should be places where students are not distracted from their work by insufficient space or ill-fitting furniture. The care and investment into the quality of the school also sends a message to students about the importance of their education as well as their own importance as members of the community.  Security measures, for example, are important but are often misguided in their effectiveness, sometimes propagating feelings of fear and mistrust within the school and towards students. 

A school’s location is also important, suggesting and potentially defining its relationship with the community. A school located in the center of town gives it a place of prominence and allows school activity to weave into the fabric of the town. It is accessible to many by walking or biking and can increase interaction between students and the larger community. Alternatively, schools outside of downtown areas that are only convenient by car or bus could be interpreted as the exclusion and separation of young people from the rest of the citizens.

Overlooked Spaces

John defined five types of spaces that are often left out but can greatly enhance a school design:

·         Community Space: Within the functional curriculum-specific spaces, and in addition to them, one of the most important elements a school building can provide is space that fosters engagement and builds a sense of community.  Such a space encourages unstructured interaction among students and faculty; it may even allow opportunities for parents and guests of the school to engage, extending the connection to the larger community. A great example could be a student-operated café space that is open to the public.

·         Exhibition Space:  By creating a variety of these spaces, different types of work can be demonstrated and celebrated, validating students as makers.  

·         Performance Space:  John’s experience has shown that “the best motivation (for students) is an authentic performance at the end of the term”. One way of providing this could be as simple as a modular stage, which could be configured for performances of various types and sizes and could be moved around and assembled in different locations.

·         Student Controlled Space: This may be in conjunction with the exhibition or performance spaces, where the students determine the use and /or content of the space such as artwork, music, café space or a student run newspaper office.

·         Teacher Collaboration Space:   This space involves shaking up the traditional model of each teacher having a desk in their own classroom.   While it is convenient for each teacher to have his or her own customized space, this tends to isolate them from each other. A model for collaboration space might involve each department having its own working space (10-12 desks) and a group meeting space allowing for greater teacher interaction and opportunity for teachers to support each other. Classrooms could also be more effectively utilized and shared particularly in combination with a block schedule.

Flexible Classrooms

Like the rest of the school, the priorities of the classroom design should be comfort and flexibility. If students are uncomfortable they won’t be able to have the focus necessary for success. Classrooms should be adaptable to different types of configurations based on the type of activity that will best inform the material being studied. This is particularly helpful in block scheduled classes where there may be multiple types of activities over the course of the class period.

Connection to Environment

Another important consideration is a school’s relationship with the environment around it. Not only is this a good way to promote our collective environmental responsibility, but a connection the land around a school is a great opportunity to extend the space of learning. Cultivating the school’s exterior spaces to represent local, native eco-systems can enhance the interior spaces and activities.  Signage and other interactive tools can be designed into the landscape to expand the academic and social experience. This is also an opportunity to further the sense of integration into the larger community.  In downtown locations this element is scalable to the amount of land available or could be interpreted through pocket parks, urban furniture, or public art installations.

The Take-away

This conversation with John Shea about school design reinforced the way we approach meaningful design of any type - to consider the users’ needs and aspirations by listening carefully rather than accepting “conventional wisdom”.   It also underscored the notion that the effect of a building on the people who live, work, and play in it can be carried out far beyond its walls.  It was a fun and impassioned conversation that challenged us to think critically about how to cultivate a vibrant learning atmosphere.


Further Resources:

Most Likely to Succeed’ an acclaimed 2015 documentary centers on High Tech High, a school that John co-founded.

‘Horace’s Compromise’ and ‘Horace’s School’ by Theodore Sizer   Coalition of Essential Schools