New ‘Ecosystems’ for an Aging School

Pioneering Texas elementary school supports individual student growth, innovative learning modalities and team teaching.

When Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District set out to replace Sheffield Elementary, an outdated school built in the 1980s, district leaders were focused on developing “creative, tenacious, collaborative and joyful students” in a diverse district where more than 60% of students are economically disadvantaged. Improving literacy rates, teacher retention and the desire to cost-effectively create equitable opportunities for the community were all top priorities.

In a three-month series of tours, surveys and workshops, educators and designers explored learning modality assessments and day-in-the-life studies, seeking to understand the new roles for students and their teachers. As part of the master planning process, the LPA team considered Sheffield’s design features in the context of the Dallas-area district’s other campuses.

“The master planning process was critical in establishing the broader community vision for CFBISD,” says LPA Studio Director Craig Drone. “We didn’t just look at Sheffield, but at all 23 other elementary schools to make sure it was all part of the same vision and that every student has access to the same educational opportunities.”

Ecosystems 1
A shared collaboration space at the center of each learning ecosystem emphasizes community building.

The new campus focuses on supporting the individual student, facilitating innovative learning methods and fostering a team-oriented approach to teaching. The 90,000-square-foot building is composed of six “learning ecosystems” organized around a central courtyard. Each ecosystem contains a complete suite of learning and support spaces for one grade, with six classrooms circling a shared collaboration space, and direct connections to an outdoor learning lab. Support spaces for teachers in each ecosystem enable collective management of the classrooms and a collaborative approach to curriculum development.

“The ecosystems are where all the magic happens,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw. “Our goals were really about collaboration and love of learning. How do you make learning fun and joyful and connected to the scale of students?”

Ecosystems 2
Learning stairs offer a flexible and creative environment that students can make their own.

Each ecosystem has three types of classrooms, each with a different focus on a spectrum from traditional to transformational. Spaces dedicated to teamwork and design thinking offer pin-up areas, tack-able surfaces and furniture that encourage student collaboration. Two are project-based, with resources for experimentation, tinkering and making; two more are standard classrooms, designed primarily for teacher-led activities.

The collaboration space at the center of each ecosystem emphasizes community-building and enabling teachers to connect with students. Four zones serve distinct learning activities, from the teacher-led “we space” to the play- and movement-based “free space.” “Team space” enables small groups, while “peer space” is designed for independent study and inquiry-based learning.

Ecosystems 3
Spaces are designed to support a wide range of learning activities.

“The school has been a breath of fresh air for our students and for our staff,” says Sheffield Principal Robert Atchison. “When you look at the comparative resource that we are coming from to the new resources that we’ve been given, there are great opportunities for our kids.”

To address efforts to improve literacy, the main library is designed as the heart of the campus — the first thing visitors, parents and students see when entering the front doors. Each ecosystem has its own mini library to enable reading in a collaborative setting and make resources more accessible. Signage throughout the school employs layers of lettering, color and shape to engage early readers.

Ecosystems 4
Rather than a traditional double-loaded corridor, glass-fronted hallways flank outdoor spaces, filling the hallways with natural light.

The overall design approach — with the ecosystems, learning zones, outdoor spaces and decentralized approach to literacy — is about preparing students for a future that will demand resilience.

“We give students agency over the space so they can become thinkers and have a true sense of belonging,” Mraw says. “By enabling every individual’s preference, we broke the mold of what the physical environment needs to look like to support students to become innovators, creators, problem solvers, problem seekers.”

Ecosystems 5
The C-shaped building fringes a central learning courtyard furnished with outdoor equipment for play and learning.

Each ecosystem includes features intended to make teachers’ process more efficient. The Teacher Learning Center gives instructors a place to huddle, collaborate and model the behaviors they want to see from students. They also have a break room with a fridge and microwave, and an adult bathroom, all accessible without leaving the ecosystem.

Every element in the LEED-certified facility — the district’s first LEED certification — reflects a focus on human health and energy efficiency. Outdoor learning opportunities are emphasized. The school’s C shape creates equitable access to the central courtyard, which is furnished with outdoor equipment for play and learning. Cutouts in the floor plan for each ecosystem create science-focused courtyards, each geared toward the content being learned at that grade level.

Ecosystems 6
Students are given agency over the space, supporting different types of thinking and a sense of belonging.

Strategically placed glass walls flood spaces with natural light; acoustic zones provide areas for different activities. Learning stairs that connect different spaces have been embraced by students; one grade level set up a tent at the top of the stairs to use as a reading space. New collaboration spaces work well with “intervention time,” when small-group instructors, special education teachers and counselors can pull students out of classrooms for one-on-one time, Atchison says.

“During intervention time, the entire ecosystem will really be popping with small groups,” he says. “It’s been really wonderful to see the space being utilized in the way it was designed, for collaboration and working together.”

When you look at the comparative resource that we are coming from to the new resources that we’ve been given, there are great opportunities for our kids.

Ecosystems 7
Students have access to a wide variety of outdoor spaces, each one tailored to the developmental needs of a different age group.

In many ways, the new campus is addressing the district’s larger goals. In the first months of operation, teachers joining the staff cited the new learning environments as their primary motivation for joining Sheffield. “The feedback that we’ve received from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive,” Atchison says.

The students are excited, too. “They’ve just never seen a facility like this,” says Malcolm Mulroney, who was the district’s chief operating officer when the school opened. “When they walk in and they see the big open spaces and they feel the natural light, their eyes just get enormous. They are in awe.”