The Impact of a Thoughtfully Designed Learning Space
A school’s design can greatly impact students’ ability to learn. The layout alone can either make it confusing for students and their families or it can create a welcoming environment where staff, students, and resources are connected and accessible. The design can promote an inclusive school culture, hands-on learning, and community engagement.
Many schools today try to focus on the whole child, looking not only at their academic needs but their social-emotional and physical needs. But with so many goals in mind, how can a school’s design really facilitate all of that, and what could this space actually look like?
Meet the Faubion School. This PreK-8 school in Portland, Oregon is part of Portland Public Schools (PPS) and serves almost 1,000 students, 81% of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Concordia University-Portland partnered with PPS and, in 2012, a capital bond was passed, helping them completely rebuild the dilapidated school structure.
This new building was carefully designed and it was built using a revolutionary education model called 3toPhD®. Concordia and Portland Public School’s public-private partnership resulted in this new model, which provides wraparound support services and revitalizes the connection between the school and the community. Additional partnerships were also formed. Kaiser Permanente, Trillium Family Services, and Basics (formerly Pacific Foods of Oregon) stepped in to address students’ and families’ needs.
In August of 2017, the Faubion School + Concordia University opened, and the 138,827-square-foot, three-story facility houses the public school, Concordia’s College of Education, a Kaiser Permanente wellness center, a food club, counseling services, STEAM makerspaces, and more.
To dive deeper into how this incredible learning space was designed, I spoke with Concordia University-Portland’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, Angela Vossenkuhl, MEd.
How did you first get involved with the Faubion School in Portland, Oregon?
I was first involved with some summer school initiatives. As the 3toPhD® education model evolved, I became the director of the undergraduate programs in the College of Education.
Our connection to Faubion started with Concordia University-Portland students working on campus, teaching art lessons, reading to or with students, helping as tutors, and getting clinical experience on site. Our collaborative relationship with Faubion evolved over time and when we had secured the funding to rebuild the school, I was invited to many building design meetings and co-led a sub-committee of teacher preparation staff.
What were the primary goals of the rebuild in terms of its design, and how were those goals achieved?
From my perspective, the primary goal was to build a community together. We did not want a shared space in which one side was Faubion and the other side was Concordia’s College of Education – we wanted to be colocated. This was a process. It took many conversations and dream moments to come to a place where we could definitively say, “Let’s do something different, something that we have not seen in education.” We wanted to form a team that works together every day and, in essence, begin to build a bridge between K-12 and higher education.
This came to fruition by placing our College of Education teaching faculty (preliminary licensure faculty) in faculty suites throughout the building. Our early childhood expert’s office is in the kindergarten hallway. She is able to collaborate with teachers, students, and families every day. They see her as part of the team.
This same idea was put into place on each floor of the building. The administrative group is together; the dean’s office is next to the principal’s office. The directors (myself included) of both preliminary licensure programs (undergrad and graduate) and the assistant principals are also located in this area. This gives us the opportunity to collaborate throughout the day.
We are all invested in each other’s success.
What was one of the challenges faced during the rebuild and how was that addressed?
During the rebuild, the first major challenge was that Faubion was moved to a temporary location about 15 minutes from Concordia. We didn’t want to lose any momentum with the processes we had in place, so we transported students who needed assistance getting to the off-site location. This allowed us to continue to let our College of Education students practice teaching lessons and tutoring in addition to continuing their normal school day routine.
The 3toPhD® education model focuses on making the school the heartbeat of the community. How does Faubion’s new design help achieve that goal?
The Welcome Hall is a prime example of the “space” that creates the heartbeat of the community. It is a space that is open all day to families and the community. Embedded in this space is the 3toPhD® Collaborative Director and the liaisons that work with the community (a services coordinator, a STEAM liaison, and a Faubion + College of Education liaison).
Our wraparound services are also located in this area: the entrance to the Early Childhood Center, the demonstration kitchen, the Faubion Family Resource room, the food club, Trillium Family Services, and Kaiser Permanente.
Many Kaiser Permanente employees have spent time volunteering in classrooms. Meredith Eggert, who runs Basics’ Food Club, has a caring, gentle way and has built an incredible relationship with the students and families. We also made sure there was a process in place for students to be able to receive services during the day from all of our on-site providers.
What specific spaces on campus are designed to encourage teachers and specialists to collaborate?
The teacher wellness lounge was designed for Faubion teachers and Concordia faculty to spend time together, eating lunch, etc. The school was designed with a lot of glass windows so that teaching is very transparent — whether it’s a Faubion educator teaching children or a College of Education instructor working with undergraduate or graduate students. You can see the learning going on across campus and on every floor.
I think the most important collaboration is the authentic, natural curiosity between faculty. For example, the College of Education reading specialists are located on the second floor and they naturally collaborate with each other. The literacy faculty asked Faubion teachers if they could come into a class once a week for 30 minutes to support students in literacy.
It is awesome to see an entire class walk up to the second floor, find their Faubion buddies, and begin to enjoy books or work on math concepts together. It is this authentic collaboration that is the essence of education.
There are a lot of opportunities for Faubion’s PreK – eighth-grade students to experience hands-on learning. Can you share more about this?
Many teachers have taken advantage of the technology educational assistants to help design meaningful projects as an extension of the curriculum. Right now the sixth-grade students are designing civilizations since they have been studying that in social studies.
The demonstration kitchen is frequently used by teachers so that they can cook with their classes. One of our Exercise and Sports Science instructors began a cooking club for Concordia University-Portland students and it meets every few weeks. So yes, there are many ways that students are engaging in hands-on learning.
What impact has the new Faubion School had on staff, students, parents, and the community at large?
Faubion School + Concordia University has the potential to be amazing. While it is year two of the venture, it is important to let the relationship build authentically. As a faculty member in charge of the teacher preparation program, I can say that my undergraduate College of Education students are amazed that they get to work with students every semester (starting as freshmen).
We have been doing this for many years, but when you also get a chance on your very first day of college to walk through a building and interact with students, families, and teachers, it adds an element of professionalism to the position. These students walk a little prouder when a little five-year-old runs up and gives them a high-five, or when a parent smiles and says good morning.
Our future educators have extensive mentorship during our four-year undergraduate program, and there are opportunities for our on-campus, graduate-level teacher candidates to be involved as well. We know that research says that 50% of teachers will leave within the first five years, so we hope that these experiences provide our students with opportunities to gain many meaningful experiences so that they continue to be amazing educators.
What advice can you give to school or district leaders who may be looking for ways to improve or redesign their learning spaces?
Let the teaching happen from the ground up. Teachers who have a voice design incredible learning opportunities, so I would encourage leaders to trust the process – it will be messy at times, but the learning will be powerful. We can change the face of education just by collaborating and thinking outside of the box. If we say engagement is key in the classroom, why wouldn’t engagement be key to the people leading classrooms?
What are your hopes for the future of Faubion as it continues to grow and evolve?
We have only just begun to become a community and we are not done. It takes time to build and we need to trust the process. I continually hear about Concordia faculty and Faubion staff working together to solve problems. I hope that we continue to allow our teachers to have a voice in the learning and teaching process. I hope we set goals together and that we are able to share the 3toPhD® education model with others so that they can enrich and advance their learning communities.
To see more of Faubion’s innovative design, check out this video tour.
Kara Wyman earned a MEd and a BA from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder, and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. She’s served as the Alumni and Community Manager for Concordia University-Portland and is now the managing editor of Concordia’s Room 241 blog.