If you have ever visited a prison and an old school in Philadelphia, you probably noticed that the aesthetics looks eerily similar. During my early years as a principal, I inquired about that from some of our elder statesmen. They told me that I should look up the contract that our school district awarded for many of the schools built in the 1920s. Not only were many of them built to serve as bomb shelters for their neighborhoods, the architect had previously only designed mental institutions.
I never looked up who actually built my old school, but it was easy to see the difference between the school I worked at for my first ten years and where I moved for my next five.
My first school, John P. Turner Middle School in southwest Philadelphia was built in the 1970s and I didn’t think it could be any better (look, I was 21 and had only been in Overbrook, which was built in the early 1900s); massive art and music suites, a performing arts auditorium, swimming pool, spacious physical education space, space for outdoor gardening, etc. Despite the smoky windows (the designer didn’t want learning children to be distracted by sunshine), the school was bright—albeit, artificially.
When I moved to Shaw, I could not believe the difference in physical features and upkeep. This building was completed in 1928. A grand building with opaque marble and statues, looked, in many ways, like it was stuck in 1920s. If you travel throughout Philly, you would have noticed many schools with the exact design. The old building was not the only issue, I had issued with the union because, after waiting for months, some fathers replaced some of the missing doorknobs. While we viewed teachers needing to use scissors to open classroom doors as problematic, the union rep looked at non-union workers volunteering their time to address this hazard as an issue.
I don’t mean to suggest that an older building cannot be beautiful. I do wonder, however, how much time designers, who are commissioned to create space and places for children to thrive, think about the psyche of the children who will spend a significant part of their time in these schools.
Our leadership team at Shaw decided to spend 1 percent of the budget to increase the aesthetic beauty of our school. We contracted with several community artists to provide our students with internships so that they could use our school building as a canvas and improve the physical condition of our school.
Some really like the older buildings. They always remark of how much character they had. But, it is always notable that new buildings in affluent neighborhoods have just as much “character” and look like someone is investing in the spaces their children occupy.
It’s not just me.
“According to early scholars, as cities and towns became more populous and greater attention was focused on establishing the proper infrastructure for a growing society, school buildings became a new project for societal reformers.” Barnard, in 1842, (as quoted in Weisser, 2006 and Tanner & Lackney, 2005; Weisser, 2006), cities’ school designs could be described as,
“almost universally, badly located, exposed to the noise, dust and danger of the highway, unattractive, if not positively repulsive in their external and internal experience.”
…children were expected to attend schools, especially in cities, and schools were built and added onto in a fashion that would later have them labeled as “factory-like, dark and dank”, or, as Tanner and Lackney tell of this trend, “[factories created to produce things led to factories to produce learning.”
Perhaps, those who design schools should consult with children, parents, and child psychologists who are experts in spaces that are optimal for children, youth, and educators. And, while we may be physically and financially limited in our ability to redesign current school spaces, we should be as creative and deliberate as possible to improve our schools’ conditions.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.