It Takes A Villiage…An Urban Village

December 9, 2011

"NEXT" Fall 2011, John R. Dale, FAIA, LEED AP

Being in middle school is like being … well … in the middle. And the transition from elementary to middle school is tough. The building is so big and so unfamiliar you can get lost. There are classes in different rooms with different teachers, all of whom give homework. New faces fill the halls. And then there are the endless rows of lockers.. Will I remember where mine is, let alone the combination? Will I ever fit in here?

Many fears of middle schools students are eased in an environment that is safe, nurturing, and healthy. The Stephen Wise Temple’s new David Saperstein Middle School was designed with the specific educational needs of middle school students in mind. A school environment that says it’s okay to be in the middle.

The Middle Ground
The school’s motto of “developing students with sharp minds, generous hearts, and kind souls” is expressed in a variety of ways throughout the school. Built around the urban village model, Saperstein Middle School simultaneously stimulates and nurtures students at this most critical point in the intellectual development.

Jason L. Ablin, Head of School, states, “Our claim on students is that, eventually, they express their understanding, desire, and commitment to being part of a larger community … a larger global Jewish community.” Thus the urban middle school village must be intimate, comfortable, have personalized learning spaces, and provide opportunities for collaboration, partnering, and discovery.

It is obvious from the first point of arrival at the circular entry plaza that this is not a typical middle school. The stepping forms and varied textures recall a hill town rather than a school. The leadership of Stephen Wise Temple knew that, given the challenging site, they would not be able to compete with near by independent schools on the basis of conventional classrooms and athletic fields. Rather, the focus was on the creation of a truly unique sense of place with an emphasis on quality, intimacy, and inspiration.

The interconnected chain of plazas, loggias, and terraces becomes the common space that forms the main street of this urban village. Every classroom, assembly room, and support space have a front door and window bays on the street, providing a strong connection between indoor and outdoor learning spaces and, most importantly, a natural place for social interaction and small group learning. While individual lockers are provided under overhead canopies, the casually scattered backpacks attest to a sense of security and being “at home.” The inspirational Hebrew and English sayings, etched into the walls along the walkways, add a sense of sacred purpose to the village feel.

The education program accommodates 240 students and includes eleven 750-square-foot classrooms, a technology/media lab, art center, student cafeteria, and a Beit Midrash. Technology is everywhere. Smart board technology and plasma screens within the classrooms and multi-purpose spaces throughout the campus connect students through video conferencing to parallel classrooms in Israel to provide distance-learning experiences.

Versatile Spaces
Because of the highly compact and challenging site, every space in the urban village must take on multiple roles. A multi-purpose room can be used for lectures, dining, or special events. With a wall of folding glass doors, activities here can easily to spill outside into the adjacent crescent-shaped courtyard. The amphitheater doubles as a basketball and tennis court and its 35 foot retaining wall has been equipped as a professional grade climbing wall. The Beit Midrash, a circular room nestled among the classrooms, houses the school’s Ark of the Covenant and sacred texts. It includes a sweeping mosaic conceived of and executed by the entire community. It is also equipped for multi-media presentations for assemblies and team teaching.

Meet Me in the Middle
Ablin concludes, “Learning for a middle school student is as much a social/emotional event as it is an intellectual one.” For this reason, the David Saperstein Middle School has been conceived as an urban village, providing both a secure home and a stimulating launching pad for the life journey of an exceptional group of middle school students. A place that makes it easy to be in the middle."

John Dale is a principal with Harley Ellis Devereaux and the firm’s K12 schools studio leader.

TAGS: pre k-12 education,