Good education doesn’t require brand new architecture – expert

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Paul W. Bennett has seen more than a few historic schools mistreated and demolished in his day. He’s also seen some stunningly beautiful renovations. But there’s one thing they all have in common, he says.

“I’ve never found a situation yet where a board document didn’t inflate the cost of renovation and lowball the cost of new,” Dr. Bennett told a full house at the Cathedral Neighbourhood Centre on Monday, May 20.

Bennett is an adjunct professor of education at Halifax’s St. Mary’s University and director of Schoolhouse Consulting, a group that analyzes education policies and helps local communities keep their schools viable and healthy. A two-time finalist for the Governor-General’s Award for Teaching Excellence in History, he’s also logged considerable teaching hours in school classrooms, and has authored seven books, including Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities.

One of the reasons school administrators don’t like to renovate existing schools is because they see new as easier, Bennett explained.

“New is built for obsolescence and disposal, while historic schools stand 100 years or more,” he said.

Bennett told the story of Chebucto School, which withstood the 1917 Halifax explosion and was commandeered as a mortuary because it was the only building left in the blast area. More than a beautiful, sturdy structure, Chebucto’s history means something to its surrounding community, Bennett said.

Bennett noted Connaught School arose the rubble of the 1912 Regina tornado as a symbol of civic pride and survival for the neighbourhood and city. This heritage should not be treated lightly, he advised.

“The way a school looks, the feel, the history it communicates, is very important,” he argued. However, what’s important to local community members is seldom factored in by education bureaucrats, he said.

“Schools are being taken further away from the people,” he said, connecting the demolition of historic schools to trends that favour linking students to the marketplace over community-based linkages.

Historically, the modernist movement in education emphasized vocational schooling and built schools resembling factories, he said, providing several examples of large-footprint, low-slung school buildings with classrooms set up like work stations.

This movement continues today, Bennett said, resulting in what he jokingly calls “Cineplex Elementary” and “Airport Terminal High.”

Bennett is skeptical about claims that Connaught School’s architecture is “obsolete” and that students will be better served in one of the new open concept-style schools promoted by the U.S. architectural firm Fielding Nair.

Bennett said claims that such designs are based on “established science” ring hollow.

“The Fielding Nair-inspired schools, like Douglas Park and others of similar design, are visually impressive but largely based on contemporary design theory rather than school-based research,” he said.

Bennett said one of Canada’s few school design academics, Dr. Neil Gislason, studied the new design environments and found them too susceptible to exterior noise, distractions and disciplinary interactions. The schools are an especially difficult environment for the inclusion of high needs students, the study found.

Bennett observed that, like an airport terminal or a jail, the new design environment “has sightlines, it has arrival and departure halls, it even has cops. It looks progressive, but it’s not.”

Bennett urged community members to instead fight to improve the school they already have.

As an example, he pointed to the renewal of John A. Johnson Elementary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Instead of destroying and replacing their turn-of-the-century school, the community asked for the focus to be on teaching, learning and building a vibrant community hub. The school district listened, with excellent results.

The school and its students have since gained national acclaim, proof that progressive education doesn’t require the destruction of historic schools and their replacement with brand new architecture.

“Public education has drifted off course…What really mattered, right from the beginning, was small community schools, good teaching, educating for character, and advancing a democratic society,” Bennett said.

“Designing modern features into a traditional school structure is far better for students,” he concluded. “It’s also more likely to win community support and to ensure community engagement.”

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