Traditional school planning can be overwhelming and leave new students feeling disconnected – this prototype school, however, offers a game-changing example of inclusive architectural thinking

Children are a segment of the population with the future of the planet in their hands and yet with no say in even their immediate environment while they’re little. However, the process and resulting solution for Rockford Public Schools’ new K-5 prototype school turns this around, being designed with students rather than for them.

The architects – CannonDesign Studio with design principal Robert Benson – arrived at this student-driven focus early-on in the process, which influenced several aspects of the school’s design.

Through discovery meetings with the school principal, the design team learned the school holds ‘morning briefings’ with their students, many of whom have disadvantageous, difficult and even traumatic home lives. The briefings are designed to help students release any negative energy they may hold, so they can best take in new information and collaborate with peers throughout the day.

Recognising the importance of these morning briefings with students, we identified a need for more programmatic space in which these events could occur so that students could best thrive. 

Balancing budget and space constraints, the CannonDesign team collaborated with Rockford 4th grade students to design a covered town hall at the centre of the school.

CannonDesign Studio design principal Robert Benson

The town hall unites the gym, cafe, art spaces, library and other public areas while also providing a home for the student briefings. And the large communal space is surrounded by grade-level learning communities specifically designed to meet the needs of distinct age groupings: kindergarten, first and second, third and fourth and fifth grades.

“By engaging students in the design process, the school also moved away from more traditional school planning features – such as long, daunting corridors and fixed classroom objects that inhibit interaction and skill development – to embrace a more open village design concept,” says Benson.

This concept creates connecting hubs throughout the school and along with the town hall itself enhances a wider sense of community.

“The architecture engages children directly, both stimulating and educating at the same time. It responds inherently to the fact that entering kindergarten – in this case an 8000m² building – can be a difficult transition and an intimidating experience.”

The architecture engages children directly, both stimulating and educating at the same time. It responds inherently to the fact that entering kindergarten – in this case an 8000m² building – can be a difficult transition and an intimidating experience.

CannonDesign Studio design principal Robert Benson

Influenced by the drawings of children, CannonStudio created unique kindergarten spaces that are visible from the street to help eliminate any intimidation. Each space has individual geometric windows with different colours that break the scale of the school down to the one-room schoolhouse, allowing kindergarten students to understand their space within the larger community. 

The vibrant windows, installed near floor level, are irresistible to the kindergarteners, beckoning them to engage with the world around them.

This geometric strategy extends to other spaces throughout the building where students learn while playing. With integrated furniture, the students learn mass and void relationships in the physical world. This spatial reasoning is essential for their development. 

In the learning communities, the soft, movable furniture is designed to be pushed, pulled, and repositioned any way the students desire. Essentially, their collaboration, community, and experience is remade by them each day.

Finally, the architecture of the whole is designed to reflect the larger community of Rockford, Illinois. Drawing on the community’s agrarian and industrial roots, the large facility is broken down into smaller, identifiable masses, reflecting the students’ understanding of architecture and place.

Looking at both the macro – that is history, community, culture – and the micro – being cognitive development and learning styles – the CannonDesign team has synthesised a new prototype for both the students and community.

Credit list

Rockford Public Schools District 205 Elementary School
RQT Medley quartz tile by Rikett
Partitioning systems
Hufcor operable partition
VS America; Smith System
Cannon Design; design principal – Robert Benson; project director – Stuart Brodsky
Sunflex folding sliding door
Draper Flexshade2 roller shade

Story by: Charles Moxham

Photography by: Christopher Barrett and Robert Benson

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