“We want to build the best school in America, that will be at the core of our community”. Those were the highlights of the request for proposals issued by Alamorgordo, N.M Public Schools (APS) for the design and construction of a new middle school. My long-time friends and colleagues at the multi-award winning design firm of Lake/Flato called and asked if I might be interested in joining a team to respond. I did, we won, and now we get to co-imagine with the Alamogordo community a school that I believe will set a new standard for K-12 education both in New Mexico and beyond.
Some critical background: Alamogordo is a small city of about 30,000 that is somewhat typical of rural America. It is mostly working class, mostly White and Latinx, and politically conservative. The biggest local economic engine is Holloman Air Force Base just a few miles to the west. A few years ago, the defense department let APS know that if they did not improve the public schools, the air force might re-locate the base’s fighter wing. That was a wake-up call that grabbed the attention of district and business leaders, many of whom have multi-generational family ties to Alamogordo and the beautiful, historic Tularosa Basin: without stronger public education, the very existence of their community was at risk.
With the support of a new school board, a new superintendent and one of the most obstinately visionary teams of district leaders I have ever encountered articulated a forward-leaning vision of education as the basis for the new school. The keys to that future learning experience are familiar: project and inquiry based, experiential, student-centered, flexible, differentiated, hands-on, collaborative. My role on the design team is to drill down and help translate those learning experiences into physical spaces that will amplify learning.
Way back in about 2010, my brother-in-education Bo Adams started talking about creating a “pedagogical master plan” for schools, a holistic way of re-aligning what I started calling the school “operating system”. By drilling down on the district’s vision for learning in the future, we will create spaces that allow teachers and students to shift towards those elements of deeper learning that we know lead to higher student engagement and improved performance. We will draw on leading school exemplars that have pioneered the re-imagination of how space and learning co-evolve, schools like Design 39 Campus, High Tech High, Mt. Vernon School, and Kingsway College.
Perhaps the most exciting challenge on this project is the vision that the new school be “at the core of the community”. For years I have been loudly advocating that schools break the boundary between “school” and “world” not only by sending students to learn off campus, but by inviting the community in. With our design, we imagine a day when local community leaders like the Air Force, the local health center, and the community college have a physical instructional presence on campus; when the Kiwanis and the Elks hold their lunches and the police department and the state board of education offer professional development workshops in the Community Hub on campus; when student Shark Tank teams give pitches and TED-type talks as the openers of a Saturday community barbecue and concert on campus; when local start-ups trade a few hours of engagement with students for a desk in the on-campus Incubator; and when parents can come to a spot on campus for everything from continuing education, a free haircut or dental check-up, some clothing or food, or help with setting up their family’s Wifi.
We are in the pre-design phase of this work. We have an incredible site with a stunning view of the Sacramento mountains. We have a team of designers lead by Studio Southwest Architects and including Surroundings Studio who are designing the outdoor learning experience in an inviting climate. We have dynamic district and civic leaders. Stay tuned. In the fall, we will be able to share a preliminary design, and a couple of years from now you will want to schedule your visit to come see “the best school in America that lies at the core of a community”.