Transforming Older Schools into Modern Learning Spaces

How a new elementary school prompted a district-wide classroom furniture overhaul

“Leave no classroom behind,” could be the motto for Center Grove Community School Corporation. Case in point: What began as furnishing a single, newly built elementary school led to creating modern learning spaces in all of the district’s 180 elementary classrooms.

Brian Proctor is principal of the district’s new Walnut Grove Elementary School, which opened in Fall 2019. He was also on the new school’s design team. Early on, it faced a dilemma common to many growing districts. Located just south of Indianapolis, the district’s student population has increased by one third over the past decade, with no yellow flag in site. (This is, after all, the home of the Indianapolis 500.)

“In the past few years, we’d been stressing over how to create exceptional learning environments in our older elementary buildings, some over 50 years old,” Proctor explained. “We were asking ourselves, ‘How do we positively influence the learning environments of all K–5 students across the district, not just within our new elementary school.’”

Melding Old and New

The answer arrived in surplus new-construction funds. The district could allocate money to purchase new classroom furniture and technology for both the new school and Center Grove’s five existing elementary schools. But melding the old with the new is often easier said than done.

The district needed flexible classroom furniture that could work in the new school (with features like mobile smart boards, adjustable lighting and collaborative learning spaces) and the “mature” classrooms. Proctor agreed that the traditional, outdated classroom furniture was not working well.

“The old furniture and lecture-style layouts weren’t helping us to teach everyone to be collaborative in a high-tech learning environment.” He gave this example, “A student would push a desk, it’d catch on the rug, flip over, and stuff would go everywhere.”

The old-meets-new endeavor would require proactive planning and a lot of collaboration.

A Two-Year Process

Under the direction of Jason Taylor (the district’s director of technology at the time), Proctor worked with a team of teachers from across the district to develop a thorough strategy, titled “Learning Spaces 2030 & Beyond,” for guiding the district to its furniture purchase.

“Schools have to create a strategic plan early on. Too many people think, ‘Oh, I can go out and buy some furniture to put in this room.’ But you really need a clear understanding of the role of your learning environment and what’s needed to support or enhance it. It takes time.”

Ultimately, Center Grove would select Smith System classroom chairs, tables, desks and storage units for the majority of the elementary school classrooms, both new and older. Here’s how the district came to that decision over a two-year time span.

Step One: Review Design Elements

Features the Oodle® stool and Flavors® chairs.

Features Interchange® Diamond desks with Flavors® seating.

Together, Proctor and Taylor worked with administration to review design elements needed for Walnut Grove and the redesign of learning spaces in the five existing schools.

From there, they identified where more teacher input was needed. Though specifics were welcomed, the focus remained the broader district-wide mission of providing an exceptional learning environment with next-generation furniture. Some old-school items would have to go.

“The process required having courageous conversations, because teachers don’t always want to relinquish control of their spaces,” Proctor added. What emerged was a need to:

  • Accommodate different learning styles, which included allowing student movement
  • Provide students with more choices and control with personalized seating
  • Allow teachers to quickly adapt spaces to accommodate newer learning paradigms
  • Open up classrooms to create more space for active learning
  • Support facilitating large group, small group and individual learning

Step Two: Host Furniture Showcase

The next step was to invite multiple furniture manufacturers to a furniture fair held in the high school gymnasium. Every elementary teacher was given time to explore the options and complete an online feedback form.

“Teacher input was very informative. That really helped us decide which vendors to invite back for presentations,” Proctor explained. Following the fair, two elementary teachers from each school were selected to form a furniture selection committee.

Step Three: Hold Design Thinking Workshops

Next, it was time to focus on creating student-centered classroom solutions by holding design meetings with teacher groups. Participants “walked” through spaces, configured layouts, and reviewed latest education trends and forecasts. Meanwhile, Proctor visited the EDSpaces conference and some others to see current designs in furniture and classroom layouts.

The committee then invited a few vendors to present recommendations and show sample layouts. Included were the team of Dainen Tolman, with Indianapolis-based dealer Business Furniture, and a Smith Systems representative. Tolman had previously worked with Center Grove to outfit its Innovation Center (a K-12 STEM space) with Smith UXL Nest and Fold Tables, and Cascade Storage Units.

“We showed the faculty the flexibility of Smith System products to address various teaching styles,” Tolman explained. He quickly saw that Smith’s Flavors Noodle chairs were a nonnegotiable must-have. Teachers loved the multi-directional seating and the flexible seat pan and backrest.

Proctor agreed. “We wanted every piece of furniture to have multiple options to meet different modalities of learning. That includes the kids who have the wiggles or like rocking.”

Other furniture aspects that ranked high:

  • Next, it was time to focus on creating student-centered classroom solutions by holding design meetings with teacher groups. Participants “walked” through spaces, configured layouts, and reviewed latest education trends and forecasts. Meanwhile, Proctor visited the EDSpaces conference and some others to see current designs in furniture and classroom layouts.The committee then invited a few vendors to present recommendations and show sample layouts. Included were the team of Dainen Tolman, with Indianapolis-based dealer Business Furniture, and a Smith Systems representative. Tolman had previously worked with Center Grove to outfit its Innovation Center (a K-12 STEM space) with Smith UXL Nest and Fold Tables, and Cascade Storage Units.“We showed the faculty the flexibility of Smith System products to address various teaching styles,” Tolman explained. He quickly saw that Smith’s Flavors Noodle chairs were a nonnegotiable must-have. Teachers loved the multi-directional seating and the flexible seat pan and backrest.

    Interchange® Diamond Desks with Flavors® Seating.

    Proctor agreed. “We wanted every piece of furniture to have multiple options to meet different modalities of learning. That includes the kids who have the wiggles or like rocking.”

    Other furniture aspects that ranked high:

  • • Quality
  • Multi-functionality of items (adaptability)
  • Cost vs. durability
  • Innovative design
  • Options (color choices and add-on features like casters and whiteboards)

Step Four: Deploy Pilot Classrooms

The committee was now ready to order prototype furniture. For the upcoming school year, two teachers (one in grades K–2 and one in 3–5) at each school would have a pilot classroom (10 total) for teachers and administrators to evaluate. Foremost, said Proctor, the teachers wanted to see, feel and move the furniture.

“The initial pilot classroom feedback from the kids and teachers was overwhelming. We had teachers coming down to look at it throughout the year. The furniture was bright and energizing. The kids loved it.”

The pilot rooms proved their worth in confirming some furniture pieces and ruling out others, like traditional file cabinets and stationary shelves. In the past, Proctor had seen classrooms where teachers dedicated a quarter of their space to storage.

“We wanted to discourage that footprint and make these spaces 100 percent about student learning.”

Step Five: Place the Order

The last step was to collect final comments on furniture selections, request bids, and receive school board approval. Smith System was chosen for about 70% of the order:

Seating – Smith’s flexible Flavors Noodle chair and Oodle stools, a stackable set of individual discs that can be stationary or rock. (Pilot classrooms determined number of chairs vs. stools.)

Tables and Desks – Smith’s versatile Interchange 3-2-1 tables, Interchange Wing desks, and Interchange Mini-Diamond desks. All tables and desks had casters. (Pilot classrooms determined ideal table and desk shapes.)

Storage – Smith’s compact, mobile Cascade Mid-Cabinet Storage units with totes. (Pilot classrooms confirmed shelving with doors required too much clearance.)

The district used three to four colors in classrooms to identify learning zones. Color schemes were clustered by grade. Kindergarten had one color style; grades 1–3 had another, grades 4–5 another, to accommodate “bubble” grades.

Step Six: Install

Taylor and Proctor’s proactive planning meant the entire summer prior to the 2019-20 school year remained for removing (and recycling) the old furniture and installing the new. To keep on track, a team installed one grade level at each school per day, until all 180 classrooms were completed.

Enjoying the Exceptional Result

Six months into the district’s fresh furniture and layouts, Proctor is impressed. Student engagement, he said, is hard to quantify. But here’s what he knows.

“Everything we have in the classrooms can quickly move from independent learning to clusters. What used to take four minutes, now takes about 30 seconds. That alone increases engagement, because students are on task.” He sees daily how the furniture empowers kids to own their learning environment and teachers to enhance, not hinder, their classrooms.

“From the start, our goal was create exceptional educational experiences in all classrooms, not just the new elementary school. I believe we’ve done that,” Proctor concluded.