Think Tank Encourages Reinvestment in Educational Infrastructure
The courage to call out a problem and create change on “the other side of town”: Legat Architects’ 2021 Think Tank launches with ideas for addressing educational disinvestment
At her first meeting with the Future Ready Columbus (Ohio) Board of Directors,
Jane D. Leach gave each board member a picture of a child under five years old. Leach, the nonprofit’s CEO, told board members that the photos were reminders of who they all were working for.
Throughout her 40 years working with schools in the Columbus region, Leach has applied this philosophy of putting children at the center of every decision. She practiced it as a teacher and administrator with Columbus City Schools and as a principal at Highland Elementary School, which has a large enrollment of underserved students. She used it when she opened a new preschool that became a center of excellence. And since joining Future Ready Columbus in 2018, she has applied her students-first philosophy to influence change within the early childhood ecosystem.
Leach shared some of her insights as the keynote speaker for the opening session of Legat Architects’ 2021 Think Tank symposium, titled HOMECOMING: Design for Disrupting Disinvestment. The Institutional & Instructional Design session, moderated by Legat’s Ross Jackson, focused on reinvesting in our nation’s educational infrastructure. Following Leach’s presentation was a panel whose members included the leader of an organization that creates playful learning installments, the founder of a forward-thinking preschool in Madison, Wisconsin, and the creators of an “agritecture” program in Berlin, Germany.
Disrupting the Status Quo in Central Ohio
In early 2018, Future Ready Columbus, a nonprofit, was directionless and had a skeleton staff of three. Recognizing Jane Leach’s vast network and her lifelong dedication to improving education in Columbus, the organization brought her on with hopes that she would establish the mission and vision to improve the lives of the community’s youngest residents.
Kindergarten preparedness plays a huge role in children’s life trajectory. Unfortunately, many students throughout the nation are ill-equipped to begin kindergarten. This lack of preparedness has been linked to a host of adulthood problems ranging from lower earnings and incarceration to poorer health outcomes.
Ohio’s Franklin County, with Columbus at its center, is not immune to the problem. According to Leach, only 40% of children in the county who enter kindergarten are ready—a disturbing statistic, especially when 90% of brain development happens within the first five years of life.
“Those early years are building neural pathways that help children learn how to navigate life, build relationships, and manage their emotions,” she said. “Healthier children mean a healthier workforce, which means a healthier economy.”
“It takes courage to stand up in the middle of the universe and loudly proclaim, we have a problem. Let’s name it. Let’s claim it.” – Jane D. Leach, CEO, Future Ready Columbus
When she joined Future Ready Columbus, Leach had clear marching orders to eliminate dismal kindergarten gaps. Leach chose to disrupt the status quo and tackle the kindergarten problem in a collective way. Despite some naysayers who thought the organization did not have the resources to achieve its goal, Leach and her small team reached out to residents and leaders across the Columbus region to preach the criticalness of kindergarten readiness and incite a cultural shift.
Future Ready By 5: System vs. Program
When she was principal at Columbus’s Highland Elementary School, “a tough place to work and an even tougher place to go to school,” Leach made a discovery: “The system was broken, not our school. We have to fix the system as a whole and strive for collective impact.”
This knowledge has fueled her efforts at Future Ready Columbus. She compares the process of fixing the educational system to getting in shape: Just as improving health requires much more than simply spending more time in the gym, getting students kindergarten ready means much more than starting new programs.
To give the system a jolt, Future Ready Columbus launched an intense process of diversifying its stakeholders and obtaining community input. It created a 39-member Early Childhood Advisory Council consisting of a diverse cross-section of the community. It created one-on-one and focus group interviews with nearly 2,000 Franklin County residents, ranging from parents and grandparents to corporate and political leaders. Leach also led a drive to make the organization’s employees “more culturally and racially competent.” For the Future Ready Columbus team, this meant reading difficult books and engaging in “thoughtful, sometimes raw discussions.”
All of this occurred during the global pandemic, with meetings done either online or in person with participants masked and socially distanced. To ensure more input from community members, the Future Ready Columbus team made itself available, whether people wanted to talk at 6 a.m. or 9 p.m. Sometimes, the organization would take food to meetings to increase participation. Future Ready Columbus even used a translator to get input from the deaf community and had materials translated into different languages.
After six months of collecting insights, the organization created Future Ready by 5, an action-oriented plan aimed at making every child in Franklin County kindergarten ready by 2030. The organization’s board and Early Childhood Advisory Council unanimously approved the plan. It includes four drivers, summarized in the chart above.
Great Design, Great Results, Great Investments
Throughout her keynote presentation, Leach offered useful pieces of advice that will benefit any organization seeking to undertake a major goal. She stressed, for instance, the importance of calling out a problem. “It takes courage to stand up in the middle of the universe and loudly proclaim, we have a problem,” she said. “Let’s name it. Let’s claim it.”
She encouraged educators to “press pause” when a new opportunity comes their way and to find a way to include many voices in their pursuits. It’s all about the power of collective action. “You don’t have to go it alone,” she said. “In fact, it’s really best not to.”
She used an apt metaphor of pouring concrete to explain the shortcomings of early learning education in her neck of the woods (and so many other areas in the U.S.). If you pour it right using systems-driven design that involves others, adjustments can be made early on. But if you don’t pour concrete right, you need a jackhammer to change it. And a jackhammer is loud and disruptive . . . that’s what it takes.
“Great design, great results, and great investments require learning about and investing in the communities you serve to really understand the needs, wants, and what will allow individuals and communities to make better use of available assets,” said Leach. “Great design, great results, and great investments also require unrivaled compassion and commitment.”
The Other Side of Town: Institutional & Instructional Design Panel
The Institutional & Instructional Design panel began with an exploration of educational disinvestment and the challenges panelists have faced. Sarah Lytle, executive director of Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network, mentioned the large gaps between students when it comes to access to resources. Some students, for instance, have access to the zoo or books that parents will read to them, while others do not.
When Jane Leach came to one school, she encountered students who too often could not recite their last name, their address, or their phone number. Some children arrived at school with dirty clothes.
The panelists agreed, however, that there are opportunities to make a difference in these students’ lives and get them on the path to success. A local museum CEO told Leach that if children visit a museum just once a year, they start to believe that they can become scientists, for instance.
David Webb, cofounder of The Well, a movement-oriented preschool in Madison, Wisconsin, said that the public sector is often too slow to make changes and the private sector is often reluctant to invest, hence the value of public-private partnerships (PPPs). He also cited The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore that compares park systems across the most populated 100 U.S. cities. One factor that goes into the scoring is equity, which considers income and race. Tools like this enable planners and policymakers to see areas that are underinvested and do something about it.
Agricultural Ecology and Architecture: Put It in the Students’ Hands
Professors Susanne Junker (University of Applied Sciences Berlin) and Marcel Robischon (Humboldt University of Berlin), who met six years ago at a Paris conference on sustainability, created an “agritecture” program. The interdisciplinary program combines Junker’s focus on design and architecture with Robischon’s specialty in agricultural ecology. Those who take the course are encouraged to “improve urban areas as students and as citizens,” said Junker.
Last year, Junker and Robischon challenged their students to transform an underused parking lot into a facility that captures the essence of their program. During the pandemic, students worked remotely to create a welcoming hub that puts the spotlight on the natural world. The plants that adorn the exterior are not just ornamental, but also educational . . . “living organisms that you can touch, smell, and interact with,” said Robischon.
One rendering shows an interior space with a pond and vegetation. A path leads to a large opening to the outdoors as if the wall has been removed. Junker said, “It’s not an interior space, not an exterior space, but something between.”
Robischon said the project exemplifies disruption. “We didn’t wait for a famous international starchitect to design the facility. Instead, we put it in the students’ hands.”
Playful Learning: Get Out of Your Own Way
Playful Learning Landscapes Action Network offers another strong example of disrupting the educational system. Executive Director Sarah Lytle pointed out that children only spend 20% of their time in formal learning environments. What then happens with the other 80%? This question has propelled the work of Playful Learning Landscapes, which focuses on creating learning opportunities outside the school in both urban and rural communities. Its educational games and signage can be seen everywhere from sidewalks and parks to bus stops and grocery stores. Lytle said that in each case, there is “an enormous increase in interactions between parents and children.”
In one Philadelphia neighborhood, the organization transformed an empty lot into a playful learning installment. Kids jump on disks to tell a story or play a game similar to hopscotch to develop higher cognitive skills.
Lytle attributes the success of these installations to listening to communities and not imposing a design on them. “It’s a talent to get out of your own way so that you can really hear.”
School Design: Give Them What They Don’t Have
David Webb, a fourth-generation educator, embraces the value of disruption when it comes to the design of schools. He suggests that the ideal school design helps “take the pressure off the instructor” by encouraging child play, exploration, and interaction with peers. For instance, one room in his Madison facility has only artificial turf flooring with no furniture. Teachers bring in different manipulatives and encourage their students to “run with it.”
Another tip to architects from Webb when it comes to school design is to “give them what they don’t have.” Students in urban settings, for instance, will benefit with outdoor areas and views to foliage. Their rural counterparts might enjoy “a heavier space that feels more like a city or an art installation.”
Leach advises architects to get into the minds of early learners and see what a day looks like from their perspective. Often, children in urban environments do not have as many opportunities for outdoor play. This is why schools, especially early learning centers, need outdoor spaces that encourage movement.
Join us for our next Think Tank seminar, Housing Design & Alternatives, on October 2, 2021.
Contact us or comment below to share your thoughts on this post. Lead photo copyright Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography.