Redesigning Education: Charter Network Leaves Classroom, Heads to Open Spaces

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Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

The Tree House at Anne Frank Inspire Academy accommodates a teacher and a small class.

Bruce Rockstroh believes that classrooms are killing education, and that tree houses could save it. Maybe not only tree houses, but innovative spaces designed to fit how students learn in the world they will inherit.

BRAINATION, a rebrand of the John H. Wood Charter District, plans to fill the city with intuitive, student-focused design that offers something more progressive than the school system of the industrial revolution.

As superintendent of the John H. Wood Charter School network, Rockstroh felt like he was the man in the parable about villagers pulling babies out of a river.

In the parable, live babies somehow keep ending up in a river flowing past the village. The villagers debate whether to keep pulling babies out of the river to save them, or to go upstream and stop whoever is throwing them in. The parable is meant to represent the dilemma of alleviating immediate needs versus making systemic changes.

For almost 20 years, John H. Wood schools have served students across the state with emotional and social challenges that prevent them from functioning in the public school system. After years of helping students whom he felt the system had failed, Rockstroh began to get an idea of how to keep the proverbial babies out of the river.

As Rockstroh saw it, the system was a failure by design – literally.

“We have a 150-year-old factory model school system, and everything [culturally] has changed except school,” Rockstroh said. “We realized that the factory model is just archaic, and something has to give.”

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A student writes on a white board at Anne Frank Inspire Academy.

The Anne Frank Inspire Academy, located on Bandera Road near Loop 1604 on the city’s Northwest side, is the opposite of that factory model. With open format spaces – some expansive, some cozy – the school looks more like a Silicon Valley startup than a school. Students and teachers can change the space to meet their needs, and learning is highly individualized. Students range from those on the autism spectrum to high achieving traditional learners and everything in between. The idea is to meet their individual needs before unmet needs become problematic.

Architects Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding are leading voices in innovative school design all over the world. They consider the Anne Frank Inspire Academy, which they designed, the closest they’ve seen to an ideal school.

“It will not only change the way we look at school buildings, but at the whole enterprise we call education,” the team writes in its book The Language of School Design.

The journey to design the perfect school – a place where no child could slip through the cracks – began with the perfect number. Rockstroh used a concept developed by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary scientist at Oxford University.

“How many people can you have in a social group and still know everyone?” Rockstroh asked, echoing Dunbar’s research question. “After 150 you tend to lose touch.”

Anne Frank Inspire is built on that number: 150 students, 50 per grade in the middle school. Rockstroh wanted to start with middle school, because that is where he saw so many students fall off the radar at larger schools. At Anne Frank Inspire, he says, no one falls off the radar. Everyone knows everyone. He tells stories of individual students who have excelled at Anne Frank Inspire after struggling in larger schools, both public and private. The student body’s size has allowed children with special needs to feel part of a close-knit community where they can thrive. It has allowed advanced students to get specialized attention that will allow them to excel as well, Rockstroh said.

Anne Frank Inspire opened as a concept school in 2014. Three years in, Rockstroh feels the model has proven itself. The school is now K-11, expanding to K-12 as the initial high school class progresses. The students’ test scores are higher than the county and state average, and there are 300 students enrolled in a lottery for the 20 spots that will open for the 2017-18 school year.

So how does a school grow if its core commitment is to 150 kids? The answer is more schools.

“Our idea is to be more targeted and neighborhood-based,” Rockstroh said. Within each community Rockstroh plans to continue offering the same tailored, individual attention students get at Anne Frank Inspire. “I believe if I could offer that in a neighborhood, people would want to send their kids there,” he said.

He doesn’t see the small school model ever supplanting the need for traditional public schools. He does hope that success in the Anne Frank Inspire model can challenge the “factory model” of schooling that is commonplace, but outdated. He toured the local Toyota plant recently and found that “even the factories don’t want the factory model of education.” Rockstroh wants to provide an alternative for families, and an incubator for ideas that could translate to more productive environments. 

“Our DNA is to enrich the school dynamics, not to take over, not to isolate, not to think we’re the answer [to every problem],” he said.

His model for growth was not ambitious enough for some funders, Rockstroh said. He doesn’t want to let money dictate enrollment or growth. “We want to build a model where I don’t have to get 15 acres and build a 2,000-kid school.”

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The Nest, a cozy reading nook at Anne Frank Inspire Academy.

This means that in order to grow, Rockstroh has to pass bonds or commit to a capital campaign. He anticipates this getting easier as word about Anne Frank Inspire begins to spread. It also helps that building a neighborhood charter costs about half as much as a traditional school serving the same number of children, according to Fielding and Nair.

As the network adds schools like Anne Frank Inspire, the name “John H. Wood Charter Network” will become less and less accurate, so Rockstroh and his board recently rebranded to become BRAINATION, a larger umbrella for both the special education schools and the smaller neighborhood charters.

Each school will be structured to maintain student communities of 150, even as the campus expands to serve more than 150 students. Currently there are 450 across all grades at Anne Frank Inspire. Maintaining the ideal size and feel is the primary challenge for the design, but also the opportunity that led Rockstroh to Fielding and Nair. 

“The school’s philosophy is to wrap around the child, but the building needs to work with that,” Rockstroh said. “If the school is trying to wrap instructionally around the child, the building needs to wrap architecturally around the child.”

At Anne Frank Inspire, there are no classrooms. The “teachers lounge” is a glass-walled workroom connected to the large, open space where students use moveable furniture to create learning spaces that suit them and whatever size group they are working with.

Instead of metal lockers, students can stash their laptops – the only school supply they carry on an average day – in a small wooden cubbyhole with a locking door. The long, low, bank of cubbyholes is along the wall in the main space, and students use it as a bench. They can move freely to and from this area, so there is no chaotic class transition.

A concrete floor in the “Da Vinci maker space” is ready for spills, and a yoga studio upstairs is available for a variety of music and movement instruction. Lighting is angled to keep the atmosphere warm and human, and spaces like the “Nest” overlooking the main space allows students to tuck away to read.

A screened porch connects the outdoors, a key component to Anne Frank Inspire’s educational philosophy. A landscaped walkway leads to a metal “shop” barn, and to the most non-traditional space of them all: the tree house.

The tree house, designed by Pete Nelson of Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters, is large enough for a teacher and a small class. It is dedicated to reflective work, such as writing and discussion, referencing the journals of the school’s namesake Anne Frank.

3 thoughts on “Redesigning Education: Charter Network Leaves Classroom, Heads to Open Spaces

  1. I look forward to reading about the students as they graduate and move into their futures.

    I’d also like to learn more details about what, exactly, instruction looks like in this model. I understand it is student-centric, but what does that look like? I’m also curious about student-teacher ratio, and about teacher retention.

    I teach at the college level, so these will be my students in a few years! I look forward to their fresh perspectives!

  2. I have a daughter in this school. She was homeschooled k-5 so we were nervous about the transition to public school. As you know honeschoolers learn at their own pace. At Anne Frank, our daughter has done quite well. The school is heavy on large scale research projects and working collaboratively. The assignments are given, time for seminar (instruction) and then individuals complete them in their own time. Where this is a problem is when kids have never learned to self direct. It can be hard to get a middle schooler to appreciate time management. So I think the children who enroll as littles and go through will be the most affected and benefited. I think traditional educators who are set in the old ways of classroom teaching have a difficult time adjusting to the concept as well. A few have moved on because of it. This is only my opinion. I happen to have a child who just jumped in and swam, so I just love it.

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