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A Campus Redesign, Courtesy of the Students Who Learn There

With help from the Pratt Institute, Staten Island high school students have reimagined their campus to better serve the small learning communities it houses.
 
 
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If students at New Dorp High School (NY) could redesign their campus, the interiors would feature theme park-sized slides instead of stairs and glass and movie screens instead of walls and ceilings.

They would make those changes to reflect the themes and character of the school’s eight “Small Learning Communities.” SLCs — essentially small schools-within-schools with different academic focuses —  are gaining traction as a model for structuring large high schools, and the city is laying groundwork to introduce the model to several of those slated for “turnaround” this year.

Proponents say breaking the schools down into smaller units gives them a small-school feel without requiring closure or more drastic changes. But the small learning communities can struggle to define themselves in a space that often looks and feels just as it did before they were created.

This issue has been the focus of a collaboration between architecture students at the Pratt Institute and a handful of students from New Dorp High School, which restructured its classes into Small Learning Communities in 2005. Students from several SLCs joined up with teams from Pratt this year to imagine how each SLC might look if they were redesigned as standalone wings of the Staten Island campus. 

The joint project began this year, through a partnership between New Dorp teachers and Radhi Majmudar, a structural engineering professor at Pratt and a 1986 New Dorp graduate. The partnership was organized by PENCIL, a growing non-profit that facilitates relationships between principals and local business leaders.

The building designs, which the groups presented to teachers and peers last week in New Dorp’s auditorium, ranged from fantastical — a building with colorful slides that students could take to move from floor to floor in lieue of stairs — to practical: glass walls and doors that would increase light and ventilation, in contrast with the school’s dark hallways.

Some of the groups designed their buildings to reflect the academic subjects that would be taught within. For example, some students suggested plastering the Institute for Health and Nutritional Careers with images of diseases caused by smoking, which they said could discourage students who sometimes smoke near New Dorp’s entrance. The Law and History Institute could have a copy of the United States Bill of Rights etched into its glass façade, and the Math and Science Institute could be shaped like an atom, they said.

“It came out looking like a flower, but it’s really supposed to be an atom,” Steve Mathai, a tenth grader in the Health Administration SLC, said as he waved at a slideshow of design images for the Math and Science Institute. “It has the nucleus, the DNA helix as a staircase and we put that into a concept for each floor.”

Edward LaForte, a ninth-grader in the Academy of Fine and Dramatic Arts, said he wanted to create a Law and History Institute with entrances so students could pop outside for fresh air between classes, and special iMax-inspired classroom environments.

“This is a dome-like structure that would be right in the middle of school. It could project anything you want for that subject whether it’s a science ecosystem or a law room,” he said, pointing to a drawing. “And the hallways would more have ventilation and more room just to move around.”

The school has no plans to expand its campus or fund new building projects. But Angela Carannante, a longtime assistant principal, said the projects still raise interesting ideas for improving the school environment.

“My favorite was the slide — we could expand it with extensions that go right into the classroom,” she said, to laughter from the auditorium. ”There are so many ideas that we can get from this with really not going to that level. Seriously, this makes the kids realize that dreaming is the first step.”