Flexible Learning Spaces Foster Project-based Learning

Peoria, Ariz. — When the vision for Sunset Heights Elementary in the Peoria Unified School District began to take shape, it was clear the school would be different. The administration’s goal was to support, inspire and motivate students as they acquire knowledge and master skills as part of a community of learners. To help accomplish that goal, the district, teachers and community embraced a new school design centered on flexible learning spaces.
This alternative design enables teachers to focus on project-based learning in flex spaces that feature retractable walls to expand space, glass walls and windows to let light in, and desks and chairs with wheels so students and teachers can easily move them around based on the educational activity.
”Teachers are able to configure the learning environment in their classroom based on the lesson design for that class period,” said Dr. Heather Cruz, deputy superintendent of the Peoria Unified School District. “Having furniture that is conducive to movement allows teachers and students to change the classroom configuration very quickly and efficiently.”
Flexible learning areas provide fluid spaces that encourage creative and critical thinking and free students to communicate clearly and openly about the task at hand. Students are able to work as a large group, in smaller subsets or independently, and spaces were created for each type of learning.
Educational researchers know learning is most effective when an appropriate blend of pedagogical strategies is incorporated. This most certainly applies to school design, which is why Sunset Heights embraces traditional classroom space but also incorporates flexible learning spaces.
Attracting more students
Designed by EMC2 of Mesa, Ariz. and constructed by St. Louis-headquartered McCarthy Building Companies, Sunset Heights opened in fall 2014 on time and on budget with nearly 150 more students than the 700 originally expected.
The campus features a two-story, 76,500-square-foot classroom building for PK-8 students, a media center, two STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) labs, a joint courtyard, baseball field, softball field, two regulation-size basketball courts, two grade-specific play areas and a solar-power-generating canopy that shades the play area. The campus also includes a 20,000-square-foot multipurpose building consisting of a cafeteria, kitchen, full gym and locker room, as well as band, choir and general music rooms. The cafeteria and gym can be divided into two functional spaces with a soundproof wall or opened up into one massive space for special occasions.
Natural lighting is another key component of this school’s design and is displayed most dramatically in the media center, which features floor-to-ceiling windows with a sweeping view of the community and mountains. It is also visible throughout the campus’ hallways and in every classroom.
Built with community support
The $16.5 million project was completed with bond approval from voters in 2002 and 2005. The school was built to ease crowding at three nearby elementary schools in the Peoria Unified School District and from the beginning community input was prioritized. The school name was selected in a social media contest and, ultimately, a district bus driver submitted the winning name. The district also held a contest to choose a mascot (the Lion Cubs) and select school colors, navy blue and orange. The Lion Cubs mascot was selected because Sunset Heights is a feeder school for the Liberty Lions High School.
Justin Dent is a project director with McCarthy Building Companies and Dr. Heather Cruz is the deputy superintendent with Peoria Unified School District.