Workbook: Back to School

ESHValerio Dewalt Train’s Earl Shapiro Hall, part of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, is on the cutting edge of educational design. Photograph Barbara Karant/courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train.“We spent eight or nine months not even picking up a pencil,” architect Joe Valerio, of Valerio Dewalt Train, says of the initial design process for an addition to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Instead, “we did our homework,” he explains. Valerio and his colleagues spent their time reading, researching and listening on visits to schools around the country and in conversation with teachers at the school and with some of the leading educational thinkers around—taking the measure of the educational landscape now and decades from now. The goal was to make the new building “as smart in the future as it was today,” he says.

Part of major expansion of the entire school, Earl Shapiro Hall houses the early childhood center for nursery school through second grade students in a 128,000-square-foot structure, and, as planned, is firmly on the cutting edge of educational design. In particular, “It’s clear form a lot of research that students learn more effectively from focus on them and provide them with contact with teachers, students, and a variety of different resources that allow them to follow an independent path to education,” says Valerio, so creating spaces to foster that became a top priority.  “In the programming and construction of K–12 schools, the emphasis is on creating as much definable square footage as possible. We convinced them that we had to have more unassigned space that could be used for special projects and events so that the kids had room to explore their own motivations.”

Another key piece of research: the importance of highly day-lit spaces. “Not only light but views of the exterior had been shown by neuroscientists to stimulate the mind,” says Valerio. “The school follows a teaching philosophy that says that outdoors is an extension of the classroom. Every single one of our classrooms has a dedicated outdoor space.”

The response to the new building has been overwhelmingly positive. Just one measure is the number of families eager to send their children there. “It was oversubscribed when we got hired, and we’ve made it worse,” says Valerio. Teachers have also been thrilled with the results: “They’ve said they only scratched the surface of understanding what they could do with the building.”

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