The primary goal of this project was to apply the evidence-based design process to inform the design of the new school building. The transdisciplinary team evaluated current research pertaining to the student population, conducted focus groups with staff, and planned a formal study to test hypothesized outcomes in the new space compared to the old space.
Spero Academy is a public K-6 elementary charter school in Minneapolis that provides a national model of tailored education for children with special needs. In order to accommodate planned programming expansion and to meet growing demand, Spero Academy hired HDR to design a new school facility that embodied their mission. The team’s design process was informed by emerging research and best practices on spaces for children with special needs, as well as focused discussions with Spero Academy staff related to ideal learning environments for the student population. Evaluation of the new building is underway studying outcomes related to staff and student outcomes.
The overall guiding principle for this project was empathetic design. The designers sought to understand how children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) experience the environment and were open to a different way of looking at space and how children interact with it. They found that identifying design considerations for learning environments for children with ASD is challenging due to a wide range of differences in impairments and abilities of each individual. However, many of the difficulties these children have often relate to sensory processing abilities and negative effects of an overly stimulating environment. The challenge of this project was to create spaces that incorporate a range of qualities and features to allow the best possible learning environment for all children.
The design team made every effort to base design decisions on current knowledge. Also, realizing that findings from empirical studies were limited, the broader team recognized the need to design and conduct additional empirical research about how a learning environment can impact children with special needs. Once a comprehensive literature review was completed, the architectural team worked with client leaders and researchers to conduct focus groups with school faculty and staff to understand the needs of this school’s students, faculty, and staff in terms of design. In addition, ideas and recommendations from literature were taken into consideration. Design features in the new school design include a welcoming entry sequence, specifically zoned spaces with varying levels of stimuli, calming and adjustable lighting, purposeful color palettes for different types of spaces, and ensuring non-toxic content of furniture, equipment, and building materials.
The multidisciplinary group discussed how best to assess the impact of the new design on all those who use the school. It was decided that faculty and staff outcomes would be assessed through a pre-post survey design, and existing school-collected data would be used to evaluate changes in student academic and behavioral performance. This study will be one of the first to provide empirical data in the realm of educational facility design for children with ASD. Data on both student and staff outcomes are included in the study. Baseline data collection includes a faculty/staff online survey with demographics and faculty/staff experience and outcomes working in the old school facility, as well as secondary data on student educational and behavioral outcomes. All baseline data will be compared with data collected from the new facility.
The team found that even within the old facility there was high faculty and staff engagement and collaboration. However, experience of the environment was generally poor with issues noted from noise and distractions, temperature, natural light, and availability of individual learning areas for students.
Based on key findings from the baseline data, the team anticipates improvements in the environmental conditions in the new school, especially related to different types of areas for student learning. Thus, significant differences in student outcomes are hypothesized. Once student data are available from the new school, the hypotheses will be tested by comparing follow-up to baseline data using both pre-post and interrupted time series analyses.