Thursday, August 13, 2015

Hillel Day School-- A Marriage of School Design with Innovative Educational Practice

As I recently posted  I am preoccupied with the potential redesign of our Media Center. I also am participating in redesign projects of two other major areas of our building— the lobby to our gym/auditorium land a proposed multi-million dollar renovation featuring the creation of a large student commons. These redesign aspirations motivated me to ask a friend if she could arrange a tour for three colleagues and me of Hillel Day School. To our delight the tour was led by Head of School, Steve Freedman and we were accompanied my friend, PTO president, Robyn Presser.

What a tour it was! The renovations occurring at the Hillel are not only eye-popping, but intellectually engaging. They have been conceived by Prakash Nair of world-renowned architectural firm Fielding Nair, and the ambition is lofty. To quote the Detroit Jewish News, “The intent is to break hard from the traditional feel of a classroom-driven school and develop new gateways of learning."  In my opinion the project designers have successfully married physical design to leading edge educational practice.

There is so much to say about the innovative approach to learning that is evident at Hillel, and I could not possibly do it justice after a one hour visit. However, I will reflect on my visit in three short blog posts. 

This post focuses on some major design features that greatly impressed me and "broke hard" from traditional school design.

The terrific openness of the physical spaces struck me most. Besides large commons areas (such as the example below) the rooms— as Steve put it— “flow” from one to the next. 

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see that natural light enhances the area and the furniture is on wheels, which is true throughout the building. This highlights a second feature--flexibility of space. Consequently a teacher must consider the optimal spacial arrangement, and has an assortment of spaces and furnishings from which to choose.


Room choices include interesting spaces such as the "Learning Studio", Seminar Room, and Da Vinci Room. We were allowed a sneak peek of the 7th and 8th grade learning areas under construction  on the upper floor, the design of which has been determined by the teachers of those levels. One can see the same principles at work.

Related to the flexibility and openness of the building is the transparency of activities that occur in these spaces. But I would like to take this up in my next post that will also touch on collaboration and student-agency-- two themes close to my heart.

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