The Los Altos School District, located south of San Francisco in Northwest Santa Clara County, has one of the highest ranked Academic Performance Index (API) records and the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in the state of California. With a population of 3950 students and an anticipated population that will exceed 4500 students by 2008, Los Altos is in the process of upgrading its school facilities as one of its five major long-term goals. Gelfand RNP Architects of
San Francisco began work in 1999 to update the District’s eight campuses. These are six elementary (kindergarten to sixth grade) schools which include Almond, Bullis-Purissima, Loyola, Oak, Santa Rita, and Springer; and two intermediate (seventh and eighth grade) schools, Blach and Egan. Two schools per year were modernized over three years. The original campuses were all prototypical California ‘finger plan’ schools with rows of one-storey stucco classroom barracks connected by exterior covered walkways and separated by undifferentiated paved spaces. Little regard was given to the inherent qualities of the dry hill and valley landscape and coastal climate of Los Altos. In the schoolyards, bright green grass, which indicates irrigation, contrasts with the existing landscape.
In developing the Master Plan for the Los Altos schools, functional aspects concerning access and parking were addressed, but there was also an emphasis on realizing that each school exists in a particular context. The Master Plan was prepared with the goal of not only updating all existing buildings, but redesigning the site infrastructure, outdoor play areas and sports fields so that these external environments were more diverse for developing children and more ecologically
sensitive to the surrounding environment. Thus, the Master Plan not only sought to address the identified site ‘problems’ (for example drainage), but also used the mending of these problems as an opportunity to create a landscape that would lend itself to experiential learning and imaginative play.
The original outdoor spaces of the schools typically consisted of paved asphalt areas, grass playing fields, and manufactured play structures in bark chip, soft fall zones. Water run-off on the site was handled through piping underground. One of the first tasks was to daylight the site water by exposing it to the surface in planted swales. This was done in response to new water quality requirements for the filtration of roof and paving run-off through planted areas before entering the storm water system. However, it was also designed to enhance students’ awareness of natural phenomena as a means of enriching the experiential and learning qualities of the site.
For example, the plan for Bullis School (the initial school under study) has third to seventh grade classrooms terraced up a steep hill where the landscape is not irrigated, and indigenous plants have been installed. To access these classrooms, students must cross a seasonal swale that will be developed to support the life and earth science areas of the curriculum, as well as the cultural study of California and its agricultural and horticultural history. By daylighting the previously piped site runoff and planting the swale banks, this schoolyard landscape becomes a didactic setting for the study of ecological relationships between the intermittent water flow, and the plants and other organisms that flourish or die as an outcome of the presence of water. Likewise, the setting of the classrooms in an unirrigated environment highlights seasonal changes typically masked by manicured lawns that are kept green year around, and will hopefully prompt teachers to adopt it as a base for exploration. In developing the Bullis school site, we were responding to a site with drainage problems and a fifty-feet elevation drop from the top of the site to the street. The possibilities that grew out of this school site caused us to re-examine the other Los Altos sites, all relatively flat, to see how standard school plans could provide some of the qualities suggested by the Bullis site.
Interconnected with the ecological goals of the Los Altos Master Plan are the social, cognitive, and emotional needs of the children, and the educational potential of the outdoor spaces. Each of the eight school campuses was designed to be quite different in order to reflect their different communities in Los Altos; however, in working with parent and facilities committees, basic needs regarding outdoor social spaces became evident at all schools. All school campuses were zoned for easy community use of libraries, sport, and multi-purpose facilities. Each fully-developed campus has an exterior space that is identified by an academic spatial typology, for example a quad, which is for the exclusive use of and cared for by the children in the upper grades. It is anticipated that children can look forward to achieving ownership of this space during their last years at the school. A larger, unirrigated space is also planned for each campus, usually on the margin of large open areas, where it can be easily supervised. This area is a less architecturally defined space where the nature of the play area can accommodate the changing social needs of the students, and the objectives of teachers who wish to use the space as a learning site for environmental curricula. During the elementary years tremendous growth and development occurs for the students. The kindergarten area is close to the front of each school, facilitating parent interaction, and providing safe and secure play areas that are distinct from the play areas of older children. A Parent Teacher Association servery adjoins seating so that parents can more easily socialize while waiting to pick their kids up, or after dropping them off.
Another important dimension of the Master Plan is the physical and visual relationship between the school buildings and their adjacent outdoor spaces. Each classroom has its own outdoor project area accessible and visually evident from inside the classroom. These project areas are loosely designed with the intention that they will be shaped in large part by the students and their teacher. Newly added north windows and skylights will increase the light quality in the classrooms and allow for the changes in the outdoor environment to inform indoor schooling. On the south side classroom walls, which originally contained only clerestory windows, project display windows were installed along with message centres at classroom doors, increasing awareness of the children’s activities.
The challenge in developing these schools was to accommodate the traditional uses of outdoor space: parking, playing fields, play structures, and the buildings, while providing places for the less quantifiable needs of growing children. Children construct many of their ideas of the world at school, and traditional schoolyards privilege hierarchical and conformist representations – lines, rules, groups, teams, and competition. Children whose skills are imaginative and dramatic need to be supported and challenged and the landscape is an ideal setting for this development. Children who excel at finding bugs under rocks need rocks to turn over, or a forest to enchant. In developing the various sites, we have been making spaces in between classrooms, on the margins of fields, and within new intermediate spaces to broaden the diversity of activities and kids that will be welcomed by the schools. Another project that looks at schoolyards as expansive learning sites where a number of developmental needs are met is the 13-acres international design competition.