直击心灵 11月 14, 2022

These public schools support learning, health, and wellness by design

Photo of daylight-filled stairway in a school

In the spring of 2019, when the new Billerica Memorial High School outside Boston, Massachusetts, was just a construction site, school administrators noted something interesting: Overall, the school’s 1,550 students scored higher on their standardized tests than in prior years. While a new test format introduced by the state that year may have contributed to the improvement, school leaders believe another force was at play: “I think students could see that our town was making a tangible investment in their education, and it made a difference to them,” says Tom Murphy, the school’s principal.

Murphy is one of a growing number of school administrators across the country who are investing in research-driven design to enhance the learning experience—focusing on what students need to participate in collaborative learning, improve their physical well-being, and safeguard their mental health. These educational leaders are redefining the modern-day school as we know it, and lighting the way for a whole new generation of healthy and supportive learning environments.

“I wanted kids to be running into the building faster than they’re running out of it,” Murphy remembers with a smile.
Billerica Memorial High School
School Name
Billerica, Massachusetts

Like most principals, his goal for the new Billerica Memorial High School was for every student to adore their new educational space. Teachers, too. The $176 million, 325,000-square-foot project, which was completed in 2019, accomplishes that goal through beautiful, functional, healthy design.

For starters, the school makes teacher and student teamwork a central focus. Several classrooms in the academic wing have pivoting walls that open to flexible shared spaces, and an ancillary space—which can also be used by the school community at large—provides a more relaxed environment for group-based learning. Billerica’s media center also offers a variety of spaces and furniture to support a range of activities, including informal studying, formal research, collaboration, and socializing. And huddle rooms—a collaboration-enhancing design concept borrowed from office environments—enable both independent and group work.

“When teachers are in a building that speaks to collaboration and fosters conversation,” Murphy points out, “you get a better educational environment.”

high school staircase in common area
Natural light floods hallways, classrooms, and activity spaces via skylights, atriums, and windows.

You also get a better learning environment when you introduce more daylight, according to research. Natural light can boost employee well-being and productivity in the workplace; in educational settings, it can raise student alertness and improve mood. (This is especially true for teenagers in high school, whose circadian rhythms make early morning rises particularly tough.) Billerica’s design allows natural light to flood its hallways, classrooms, and activity spaces via skylights, atriums, and lots of windows.

Well-being is closely linked to another biophilic phenomenon: Being in nature, even for brief periods, can substantially reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Carter School
School Name
Boston, Massachusetts

For the Carter School in downtown Boston, easy access to the outdoors will be critical to the health of its student body when it opens in 2024. The school’s 60 students, ages 3 to 22, live with severe disabilities, such as cortical visual impairment and cerebral palsy. Nearly all of them use a wheelchair. “Our students deserve the best environment to learn in,” says Principal Mark O’Connor.

Before construction on the new Carter School got underway, students were learning in a 50-year-old dilapidated structure that had been temporarily converted into classroom space. But its hallways couldn’t even accommodate two wheelchairs side-by-side. Outdoor activities and exposure to nature weren’t possible.

The top floor of the new $92 million, 86,000-square-foot Carter School is devoted to a sensory garden, which features water activities such as splash tables and a slew of musical instruments.  O’Connor hopes the garden and other outdoor areas will provide respite for staff, too, and help with retention; burnout is a huge concern for school teachers and administrators, particularly special education teachers, whose turnover rates hover around 25%.

Reducing glare and noise creates a more comfortable environment at for neurodiverse students.

The Carter School reflects the latest research in what students on one extreme of the neurodiversity spectrum need to thrive in a learning environment. Perkins&Will’s designers worked hand-in-hand with the firm’s in-house researchers to minimize sensory overload. For example, to address glare and noise, they designed the new building with glare-blocking exterior louvers, acoustic dampening panels, and white noise systems. They also kept red and yellow—the colors that are easiest to see because they are the longest wavelength on the color spectrum—limited to entrances, exits, and the elevator lobby. Those areas also have textured surfaces to help students with visual disabilities. These design techniques help students find their way around safely and comfortably.

“Minimizing the level of visual and auditory distraction was so critical for Carter students, and that simple principle can be applied to other schools as well,” says Brooke Trivas, who led the design team. “The students and staff become the lifeblood that activates the spaces.”

Keeping kids physically active is another important characteristic of healthy schools.
Morrow High School
School Name
Atlanta, Georgia

Nearly 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the U.S. have obesity, and some health experts deem this public health crisis more serious than the opioid epidemic.  At Carter, a curving corridor that loops around one floor functions as an indoor track—an active design element that will be especially useful in Boston’s famously cold and often snowy winters.

Snow is rare in Atlanta, Georgia, but there, the new Morrow High School also incorporates active design strategies. Dr. Morcease Beasley, the CEO and superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools, wanted the school building itself to get kids up and moving.

“Obesity is an area of concern for any community with a high number of low-income households, and our data tell us that we should continue to address health issues in our curriculum and the design of our facilities,” he says.

Nature trails take advantage of the wetlands and wooded areas.

The serpentine curve of the $90 million, 350,000-square-foot school, which recently opened, keeps 2,000 students walking a longer distance from one end of the building to the other. Its multiple levels, accessed via wide staircases, build additional exercise into the school day. The school campus incorporates a seasonal wetland, and the landscape design includes winding trails. Students also have direct access to the outdoors from their classrooms.

“I imagine the beauty of the location will encourage students to walk around the campus,” says Dr. Beasley. Located in a working- to middle-class neighborhood, the campus addresses environmental inequity, too, by providing open space for the students, school staff, and the surrounding community.

School design can also do more to help students feel safer from bullies.
At Billerica, the school's hallways are wide and light-filled, and its staircases are open and visible from all angles.

In a 2017 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 1 in 5 students aged 12 through 18 reported being bullied. The most common place to be bullied was in a school hallway or stairwell. At Billerica, the school’s hallways are wide and light-filled, and its staircases are open and visible from all angles. And in the cafeteria—the third most common place for bullying to occur—different types of seating, including lounge chairs, high-tops, and group tables, let students choose what they find most comfortable. “We know that these large social spaces can be very stressful for many students so we designed these spaces with that in mind,” says Trivas.

Morrow High School optimizes safety, health, and connections to the outdoors.

Bullying was not an issue for Morrow High School, but the new facility nevertheless builds safety into its design. Perkins&Will researchers analyzed the plans for blind spots to ensure visibility in all spaces. Classrooms have floor-to-ceiling see-through glass strips next to the doors, and spacious hallways have lockers on only one side; that way, students are less likely to bump into a bully and accidentally provoke an altercation. Taking a cue from airport design, the school’s bathrooms have a privacy wall rather than a door at their entrances (though individual stalls still have doors). “That way you can hear if someone is in need of help when they’re in the restroom,” notes Barbara Crum, who led the design team.

While there are many practical issues that design can and should address, ultimately, a school building itself should inspire students, says Beasley. “I want students to look at the design and think, ‘Oh wow—how did they figure that out? I’ve never seen anything like this; what do you have to study to design a facility like this?’”

Morrow High School already has an aviation program; it’s now set up to inspire future architects, as well.

“I want students to look at the design and think, ‘Oh wow—how did they figure that out? I’ve never seen anything like this; what do you have to study to design a facility like this?’”
Dr. Morcease Beasley, CEO and superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools