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Not Your Typical Classroom

By Jeff Lippman and Liz Lee
Not Your Typical Classroom

Athos Cespedes, Grade 10, performs in the poetry slam in front of the Maya Angelou graphic wallpaper in the Rise Innovation Lab. (Photo source: Avenues Silicon Valley)

If you visit any campus around the world, even those with gleaming new facilities that have just emerged from the latest capital campaign, you will often find a forgotten corner where time has stood still. Maybe it is a set of "portables" that have become permanent because of enrollment demands, or the section of campus that will need to wait four more years until the next phase of the master plan kicks in. In most of these situations, we grin and bear it or look the other way, knowing that as leaders we have done our best to improve our campuses. But what if there was a way to energize and revitalize those spaces on a tight budget? What if there was a way to turn a school building or a classroom into an opportunity to provoke student learning?

Over the last decade, Avenues has built campuses around the world with sleek, modern designs that are purpose-built to provoke student learning. Our campuses in New York, São Paulo, and Shenzhen are all connected by common design principles. When you walk into those buildings, you know that you are at Avenues. But as we were launching our Silicon Valley campus in 2021, we had a new challenge. Because of COVID-19 and other circumstances, our campus faced significant delays that impacted our construction plan. We would not benefit from the beautiful steel, glass, and hardwood features that have become our trademark. Instead, we had to scramble to find a new location.

The site we ultimately landed on was a set of more than 50-year-old temporary classroom buildings at a nearby community college campus, Mission College. The buildings were dilapidated, dated, and “off-brand,” and we had less than three months to prepare until the first day of school. Our challenge was real. How could we possibly create an "Avenues experience" in these old, moldy spaces on a tight budget? We were worried that opening in these circumstances could compromise our whole long-term vision for Avenues in Silicon Valley. There were heated arguments about whether our best recourse would be just to delay our opening for another year.

Fortunately, our team of designers leaned into the idea that real innovation comes from working within constraints. Thinking about the threshold between outside and inside, we embraced a rehabilitation approach more widely known in the auto world as “Rat Rod,” where the exterior of a custom car is intentionally left unfinished and worn down, resulting in a heightened contrast to the sleek, refinished interiors, and high-performing engine and operating system found under the hood.

We decided to call the learning spaces “innovation labs” instead of “classrooms,” which altered our traditional perspective and allowed the opportunity for a creative approach through thematic designs. The themes were centered on innovation and making, in the spirit of Avenues Silicon Valley’s Founding Class Program. To that end, we designed spaces that reimagined famous locations where innovators had thrived in the past including Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower, Edison's Invention Factory, and NASA West, where Katherine Johnson and other African American "human computers' were instrumental in expanding the boundaries of space exploration.

Avenues students and hands-on project-based learning in the Wardenclyffe Innovation lab with a Nikola Tesla graphic looking on in the background. (Photo source: Avenues Silicon Valley)

Our team researched every detail of these iconic spaces and replicated their feel through interior design choices: from the furniture and color palette to "reskinning" interior walls with large, custom graphic prints created by our own talented team. In addition, each room was also outfitted with an “artifact wall,” which functions as part gallery, part pin-up-board, with movie-set like artifacts carefully curated and displayed to transport students and teachers to the moment in time the innovation was taking place. The goal was to create learning spaces that would inspire students to take risks, be curious, and test out ideas. When our faculty, students, and parents entered the spaces for the first time in August, they were blown away. It was hard to imagine that the ugly brown exterior of these rooms could house such gleaming, provocative interiors.

But this is not the end of the story. As a result of the success in our first year, we expanded the program at Mission College this year to include seven new spaces, once again housed in the same complex of bland, outdated structures. This time, we decided to include our students in the design process by asking for proposals for theme ideas. We gave them a set of guidelines and deadlines and asked them to "pitch" their room idea to our design team. After careful consideration following a professional-level feedback session with students, seven themes were chosen, representing the whimsical, diverse, and joyful proposals of our students. The design team then drove a collaborative, iterative process amongst students, teachers, leaders, and design specialists to create a new set of innovation labs.

Associate Head, Corey Watlington, and Carys Harvin, Grade 8, review some work in the Bletchley Park innovation lab. (Photo source: Avenues Silicon Valley)

We now host our classes in rooms like Bletchley Park, an homage to the genius and persistence of Alan Turing, and Endor, a replica of George Lucas' fictional planet from the Star Wars series. The diverse set of innovation labs serve as a portal to transport our students and teachers into different worlds that help frame and seed the learning experience. Recently our Grade 10 students hosted a slam poetry cafe in Rise, our classroom dedicated to the creative genius of Maya Angelou. The aesthetics of the space clearly influenced the way our students developed their poetic voices and helped build their confidence to perform in front of our community.

This project, which started as a makeshift plan to marginally improve bland spaces has now influenced the way we think about designing for the future. We now know that we can invigorate spaces that often seem beyond recovery while remaining within a budget. In the process of doing so, we can grow stronger as a community, reflecting what we have playfully coined as a catchphrase for the experience — “Better Together.” Another unexpected value we took away from how this project unfolded was how the tight deadlines and budget pushed everyone involved to think creatively and put aside job titles in order to contribute to a shared goal. Most importantly, we now know the value of involving our students and giving them agency in the creative process. Many schools talk about student-led learning, but very few actually give students this kind of power, to help shape the spaces where they learn.

Avenues students creating prototypes for their aviation unit in the Endor innovation lab. (Photo source: Avenues Silicon Valley)

According to Grade 9 student Miranda Dieck, "Designing the Endor room was an awesome experience. I was able to come up with an idea, pitch it, and then work with the design team to make it come to life. Whenever I walk into the room, I think, if George Lucas can create Star Wars, then I can create something cool too."

If you are interested in finding out more about our process, feel free to reach out. We would be happy to share more about our learnings.

By Jeff Lippman is the Head of School at Avenues Silicon Valley.

Email: [email protected]

Liz Lee is the Avenues Global Director of Planning and Design at Avenues Silicon Valley.

Email: [email protected]

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