Kerry Leonard

Oct 26, 2021 | People

Author: Alia Akkam

The director of architecture at Reimagine America’s Schools in Chicago discusses most challenging projects, lessons learned, and pivoting due to the pandemic

Q: Do you have a powerful childhood memory of architecture?

A: As a kid, I was always building in the woods behind our house. Scavenging for materials for a treehouse or a fort allowed me to experience creating my own environment. I didn’t know it was architecture then but the experience of shaping a space that was personal and comforting, and that became a special place for me, is a powerful memory.

Q: What enticed you about educational design in particular?

A: Early in my career during the recession of 1981, the small firm I was with merged with another firm that did mostly school work. School projects are a lot of fun. They sometimes take a long time to germinate but often a new school is conceived, planned, and built within a couple of years so there is a nice arc to the project. When schools open, the kids, parents, and community are so proud of the new or renovated space, they are excited and happy to be there. It is just a great feeling to be at the dedication ceremony and in a new or renovated building as classes are starting. In recent years the opportunity to work with innovative clients who recognize that they can use the environment to help them bring about the change they envision has brought a much deeper sense of accomplishment to the work.

Q: What do you hope to see more of in the educational design realm?

A: Educators need help in understanding how a space can be changed, shaped, or adapted to better serve their needs. Spaces need to be designed with flexibility and agility to serve educators’ needs. Long-term flexibility means altering the original design as new user needs emerge. I use the term continual improvement to describe how space use should be evaluated and improved upon over time. The inside of an educational space is not so special that it should not be changed over time to better serve evolving educational needs

Q: You have a long career in K-12 design prior to Reimagine America’s Schools. Is there a project you worked on during that time that you are particularly proud of?

A: I worked on a small high school project called Wisdom Hall. It was a room designed and built to accommodate multiple learning styles, settings, and activities. A couple of years later I was back at the school and the space was empty, no longer being used. At first, I was disappointed to think all that work and effort was no longer being used until I found out that they did not need that room anymore because what they had learned in that resource space was now being done on a daily basis in every classroom. The space had helped the educators incubate an idea and allowed it to grow into the daily educational process. The room was now available to become a space to test the next idea. This really helped me understand space use in schools over time.

Q: Can you share one of the takeaways you learned from your experience as an advisor to the American Architectural Foundation on the Design for Learning program?

A: It always amazed me that when we assembled an AAF design team to work with a district, how at the end of the charrette workshop the school teams saw the architects as ‘rock stars’ for what the architects had brought to the process. It helped them see school architecture in an entirely new light. It reinforced for me what a difference a great educational architect could make when working with an engaged client with a vision.

Q: How important do you think play is to educational design?

A: It appears to me that students engaged in what they are doing are more open to new ideas and able to make connections between concepts. Kid’s play is interactive, collaborative, and engaging; play requires creativity and imagination. All of these characteristics are foundational in a child’s education and development.

Q: Tell us about Reimagine America’s Schools. What inspired you to start working there?

A: After many years working on K-12 projects around the country, I felt that the traditional process of how new construction and renovation projects were conducted was hit or miss. A great client with a clear vision of what they wanted to do might lead to an innovative project, but more often the process allowed roadblocks to be put up, hampering the best intentions of the education and design teams. The way Reimagine America’s Schools works, it helps schools and communities get started on the right foot, building a foundation that allows their creativity and ideas to flourish. I also think that our process helps elevate voices like students during the planning conversation. Our work helps everyone be better listeners and more collaborative in the school design process.

Q: Can you tell me what you’re currently working on over there?

A: Due to the pandemic we had to pivot from our fieldwork and like everyone else work virtually. In 2020 we started a three-phase effort to better prepare us for when we would be able to return to the field. Phase 1–Ideation was completed in 2020. We identified four drivers of change and the implication for the future of education and learning: Designing for Equity. The Intersection of Pedagogy, Technology, and Design. Active Learning. Crisis Preparedness. This year we are completing Phase 2–Application where we study the impact of these drivers on the design of the educational environment. The results of this phase will allow us to go back to the field and complete Phase 3–Implementation where we once again work in the field with our design teams and schools, helping them envision their future learning environments.

Q: How do you think the pandemic revealed how desperately American public schools need to transform for the better?

A: Equity is at the forefront of all our conversations now. The pandemic brought into the open issues, weaknesses, and failings in our schools and cities that were always there but not always openly discussed. We cannot return to the way things were. Agency for students, creating engaging school experiences, and using technology to break down barriers between schools and communities mean the school day and school buildings need to be designed differently now.