Von Dierks isn’t just planning the future of schools – he’s building it.
Dierks is Partner and CEO of Wald Architects & Engineers in St. Paul, currently operating across five high schools with a total project value of $516 million. The projects – in White Bear Lake, Oakdale, St. Paul, Mora and Owatona – give a glimpse into how education settings are evolving.
He said that in the future schools will change the furniture, technology and even the walls to meet the needs of individual students. He sees high schools moving toward gender-neutral locker rooms, fewer individual lockers, COVID-related adaptations and synthetic turf over athletic fields.
The White Bear Lake project will demolish 60 percent of the existing school, then expand to merge the two campuses into a 3,200-capacity school. Similar makeovers are planned at North and Tartan High Schools, and work has begun on new high schools in Mora and Owatona.
different from grandparents’ schools
Students will attend schools that are different from their grandparents’ – from hallways to bathrooms to the grass on playgrounds.
“After WWII, high schools were designed with an industrial model,” Dierks said, “with a corridor and lecture-based instruction down classrooms and hallways.”
Almost everything in schools built today has wheels, so chairs, tables and desks can be easily rearranged. Furniture can be set up for a lecture in the morning, then wheeled into groups for small group study, and then taken to yoga class in the afternoon.
“Now, everyone learns differently,” Dierks said. “Today we hang out. We walk.”
The walls are different too. Some swings open like “glass garage doors,” Dierks said, which allows classrooms to merge.
Some of the newer schools do not have bathrooms for girls and boys. Transgender students have experienced bullying in shared spaces, and schools have responded with gender-free bathrooms and locker rooms.
Dierks’ company designs private bathrooms for use by any gender. These are no more expensive than traditional bathrooms, Dierks said, because the same number of students are served either way. Only the configuration changes, he said.
Locker rooms are developing in a different way. In addition to boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, Wold builds a third type of locker room for anyone to use, called community locker rooms. “These are like the family locker rooms in health clubs,” Dierks said.
An iconic sound of high school—the slamming of a locker door—is taking off.
“We found that only 15 to 20 percent of students in the metro area use their lockers,” Dierks said.
less books, temporary locker
He said students today leave things in their backpacks or in their cars. They have less books, as there is a lot of material online. Interest in options is growing, Dierks said. Some high schools want different sizes of lockers – small, medium or large. Others have lockers for one-day use, similar to temporary storage lockers in malls and airports.
Wold designed the schools with political support in mind.
Dierks explained that most voters do not have children in their schools – so they are less likely to support the school levy. “Voters ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Dierks said.
The company designs spaces that are used not only by students and teachers, but also by the public at large. This means greater access to gyms and stadiums, and more rooms for public use, such as community education for adults.
Space is added for other non-educational uses. Dierks said some rooms are built with their own exterior entrance, so social workers, doctors and dentists can serve students without looking into the hallway.
Traffic, an eye on synthetic areas
To see how COVID-19 has changed schools, Dierks said, just look at their parking lot.
To avoid the risk of getting COVID on school buses, twice a day, parents drive their children to school. The company tries to streamline traffic by separating cars from school buses.
Traffic pressure also affects the placement of school entrances. Parents naturally pull up to the front door when dropping off their children, he said, forming a long line in front of that door. Dierks said, while planning a new school, Wold tries to put doors ahead of his anticipated line of cars.
Dierks said that the grass is an accident of modern school design.
Synthetic farms require less land because they can be used continuously without pause to fix the grass.
He said that synthetic turf can be eco-friendly. There are no fertilizers or pesticides to wash into the streams. After rain, they shed water quickly, and can be treated and controlled in ponds that maintain the flow.
Dierks said urban schools without a large number of areas are turning to synthetics.
“You can play more games on synthetics,” he said.