Miami’s big schools makeover: Out with rows of desks, in with open space, digital tech

Four years ago, the Miami-Dade school district embarked on an ambitious project: a $1.2 billion investment in remodeling aging schools to create learning centers for the digital generation.

Gone are narrow hallways, dim cafeterias and boxy classrooms with precise rows of desks. In their place: glass walls, open spaces, interactive whiteboards and — it should go without saying — free Wi-Fi. These are 21st Century campuses that reflect a new way of thinking about education.

Now at nearly the halfway point, the investment — financed by a bond voters approved in 2012 — has paid for an almost entirely new $42 million Norland Senior High, replacements for Bunche Park Elementary in Opa-Locka and Frederick Douglass Elementary in Overtown, new schools in the works in Doral, West Kendall and West Lake Hialeah, and a slew of other projects. The school district has spent or set aside more than $520 million so far for 137 projects and plans to use all of the funds by 2020.

Next up? Palmetto Senior High, a 1950s design that is getting a $43 million makeover that will include new buildings and a new playing field. The project in Pinecrest is still in the design phase, so there are no blueprints yet, but construction is slated to begin in November and finish in 2019. One thing is for sure: the new Palmetto will look nothing like your grandfather’s school.

In 35 years of designing schools, one of the things I’ve come to realize is that technology is the ultimate cannibal. It consumes itself at a feverish pace. The minute you design a school for a particular technology, it becomes obsolete.

Jose Murguido, a partner at Zyscovich Architects

“We’re staying attuned,” said Jaime Torrens, the school district’s chief facilities officer, who oversees the bond projects. “We’re not stuck in the 70s, 80s or 90s. Our designs are evolving. We’re making sure we have the latest flexible spaces.”

That means classrooms that facilitate group discussions and project-based learning, which have become popular teaching methods. The lectures and rote memorization that shaped old-school classrooms have fallen out of favor.

“The openness allows [teachers] to send kids up to do research or work in small groups,” said Lisa Noffo, the principal at Medical Academy for Science & Technology (MAST), a magnet high school in Homestead built in a former hospital. On the third floor, which was recently overhauled with bond funds, there are no walls between classrooms. Desks and tables are arranged in groups around interactive whiteboards with couches clustered throughout. At one end, a laboratory opens into one of the classroom areas so some students can work in the lab while others listen to the teacher.

“They can transition from the whole group to small groups or to individuals. Students can have the freedom to learn where they’re more comfortable,” said Noffo. “It’s 21st Century learning at its finest.”

Students said they take advantage of the open floor plan, which gives them space to work with their classmates or take a study break on the couches. “I think it’s better than traditional schools because there’s a stronger sense of community here,” said senior Hannah Benn.

Not all of Miami-Dade’s schools have been transformed. Some of the district’s 392 schools have seen smaller upgrades, like new air conditioning systems, interactive whiteboards and extra classrooms. But the schools that have gotten a makeover illustrate just how much traditional ideas about education have changed.

“The school is very flexible,” said Jose Murguido, a partner at Zyscovich Architects who has helped design several schools for Miami-Dade. “There’s a lot of moveable furniture. The technology is changing. Instead of everyone learning and looking forward to where the teacher is, you can have a group of students doing a project, another group reading, another group doing a presentation…The classrooms become much more dynamic.”

Technology is also a fixture in the new schools. The district has spent close to $88 million equipping every school with interactive whiteboards, known as Promethean boards, and other hi-tech gadgets.

The trick, however, is not to build new schools around the latest technology, said Murguido. The trick is imagining what technology, and the economy, will be like 10 or 20 years from now. “When you kind of have that long-range vision in your horizon line, the way you’re designing a school has to be a forecast model,” said Murguido.

“In 35 years of designing schools, one of the things I’ve come to realize is that technology is the ultimate cannibal,” he added. “It consumes itself at a feverish pace. The minute you design a school for a particular technology, it becomes obsolete. The key to making it adaptable is basically creating the infrastructure that supports as much technology as possible because most likely the technology you’re going to have in that school in the future doesn’t exist yet.”