All together now: Agnor-Hurt is uniting kids, K through 5, in one joyful space

Agnor-Hurt Elementary's new multi-age learning environment is a central commons surrounded by three pods, but the details of each area can change depending on students' needs. Photo: Tom Holdsworth Photography Agnor-Hurt Elementary’s new multi-age learning environment is a central commons surrounded by three pods, but the details of each area can change depending on students’ needs. Photo: Tom Holdsworth Photography

“How do we treat children with as much respect as we treat adults?” That was one of the primary questions driving the design of an addition to Agnor-Hurt Elementary, an Albemarle County public school, last year. Camilo Bearman, the Stantec architect who led the project, loved reaching for that lofty goal. “It’s inspiring as a designer,” he says.

With Principal Michele Del Gallo Castner at the helm, Stantec and the school community set out to create an environment—7,800 square feet of new classroom space—that would go far beyond what Bearman calls the “cells-and-bells corridor” of a traditional school. Instead, six classes of Agnor-Hurt students, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade, would share one large space. This multi-age environment would be conceived as flexible and communal, with students being given choices about how to pursue their learning.

“This is the ideal learning environment,” says Castner. “Teachers give up control and become facilitators.” Students learn through creative projects and through interaction with each other. The space is meant to create natural opportunities to practice leadership and to let students learn at their own pace.

So, besides putting up fewer walls, how can a designer support such a vision? One answer is by making lots of the elements movable. The classroom is essentially a central commons surrounded by three pods. Within that structure, many details can change depending on the task of the moment. Furniture is lightweight enough for kids to move it themselves. Tablets and other tech devices can easily roll around where they’re needed. This way, different groups can gather for specific tasks, then reform when the activity changes.

On a recent visit, one of the six teachers who works in the multi-age space was discussing a book with about 15 kids. The rest of the 115 students were working in small groups at tables, on the floor, in the “Skype cave” (which lets Agnor-Hurt kids connect with peers around the country and the world) and on reading benches under the big windows. Some were sprawled on beanbag chairs—illustrating the idea that kids learn better when they’re comfortable. Lighting was kept low to promote a calm atmosphere.

The space is colorful and modern, with as many curving lines as straight ones. “The ceiling plane is very articulated,” says Bearman. “It attenuates sound, and describes zones with an acoustical ceiling”—delineating spaces without walls. It’s largely open-ended. “When students have these beautiful ideas, teachers can run with them,” says Castner. “We have the space to do it.”

Bearman and his colleagues deliberately made the space difficult to convert to traditional classrooms—an architectural commitment to a new model for education. The students just finished their first year in the space, and Castner says it’s proven very popular.

“There’s another way to do this that reflects joy,” she says, “and has nothing to do with testing.”

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