While pursuing his doctorate at Columbia University Teacher’s College, Roger Keller, AIA, focused on the influence that the architecture of award-winning schools has on student achievement. Keller’s interest in the impact of architecture on communities blossomed from there. Since 2008, he has served as town supervisor of Bridgeton Township, Pa.—a role, he says, where “my architecture training has been useful within the general nature of moving people towards a common goal.”
School spaces have a huge effect on kids. School is a kind of home in which all of their growth—emotional, physical, and intellectual—plays out. It’s a social place, it’s a place of learning, and it needs to feel like a home environment. But drawing a line between pedagogy and design is a complicated thing: How does one organize space to support curricular standards? My research focused on schools that trended toward the progressive house-plan organization, where larger schools are broken down into smaller learning communities that foster an interdisciplinary understanding of course material. The house-plan design has been prevalent in middle-school education for some time, and it allows for spontaneous learning, small group interactions, and a variety of teaching opportunities. In design, learning stairs, window alcove seating, and glass walls not only allow visual communication within learning spaces, but also assist with wayfinding. However, these same areas where students gather—often without adult supervision—also pose security concerns, as do spaces that look out onto a vista from which a person on the outside has a straight visual line to the interior of a school. Security has to be part of the conversation early on, along with pedagogy. But I hope that the open-school concept can find a way forward.
In my research, I looked at how students performed on state exams and balanced that against the design intentions. Causality is very hard to prove, but you can at least say that there’s a relationship between design and achievement. From the qualitative side of the study, the positive energy in the award-winning schools was hard to ignore. Students, teachers, administrators, and even township officials spoke animatedly about their schools—underscoring the positive connection between the community stakeholders and the architects as design leaders, rather than design accommodators. The question of what a school should be like has to be one that the architect and the community explores together.
I have always been interested in this idea of educating the public about the value that quality architecture brings to a community and to our everyday lives. What I’ve tried to do in my work as an architect, teacher, and now head of a town is to find out what makes a community work, and do my best to help that along. -As told to William Richards