The Hands-On Library

A series of K-12 library upgrades focused on experiential spaces and project-based learning to maximize the impact of a Texas district’s bond funds.

In 2019, Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District was searching for ways to best use a relatively small bucket of bond funds targeting campus improvements. There was not enough money for the Dallas district to make major renovations, but it was enough to have an impact. In discussions with designers, the district emphasized the importance of making sure funds were distributed as equitably as possible and have the largest measurable effect on as many campuses as possible.

Ultimately, the discussion focused on a series of library upgrades, specifically developed to reflect the needs of each campus.

“CFBISD couldn’t completely renovate and accomplish all their goals on any one campus, so they were trying to distribute the dollars in a way that reached the most students,” says LPA Project Designer Emily Koch. “The libraries were identified as a really good space to bring up to today’s standards and make them more engaging and inspiring to students.”

Nooks and crannies designed into each library allow learners to find their comfort zone.

During the process of developing educational specifications for the district’s elementary school designs, designers heard from stakeholders that there were low levels of parent and community involvement in their student academics. The district and the design team prioritized strategies that would increase opportunities to involve parents and the public in campus activities, backed by research illustrating the connection between parent involvement and better student outcomes. At the same time, aging library spaces throughout the district were badly in need of a redesign to support the district’s focus on improving literacy in young students.

LPA had recently completed a library renovation for the district’s McWhorter Elementary, focusing on project-based learning. The new library included specific zones to support different activities: me, we, team and free spaces were designed to incorporate collaborative learning and technology integration to support a process of learning on display. The space was redeveloped to include a making space and a reflection space. A giant tree, which became a haven for resources and different activity spaces, is the hallmark element of McWhorter’s updated library.

On several older campuses, areas were reconfigured into flexible maker spaces.

The McWhorter project informed discussions as designers and educators began to look at other campuses. Four elementary schools were identified for the first round of renovations: Blanton, Freeman, Thompson and Riverchase; budgets ranged from $800,000 to $5 million. The McWhorter experience helped guide the process, but it was clear each school needed spaces to fit their specific identity, brand and learner profile.

“Each school selected their own themed elements that spoke to their community’s focus,” Koch says. Blanton, a STEM school, was modeled around a rocket ship. Other schools preferred a concept developed around their mascot. Freeman has a jungle theme; Riverchase is designed around the Eagles, including an eagle’s nest. Another library was designed around an interactive submarine.

The focus was on reimagining the spaces as efficiently as possible; most of the project dollars were going to “essential” facility needs such as HVAC, safety, accessibility and site upgrades. “We kept a lot of the bones of the interior spaces,” Koch says. Lighting was redesigned, and furniture strategies developed around mobility and flexibility. In several older campuses, walls were reconfigured to turn computer labs into maker spaces.

The renovations create a variety of spaces for collaboration and different learning activities, bolstering the district’s efforts to improve literacy.

Each library received elements that increased opportunities for hand-on experiences, tied to each school’s specific goals and brand. The spaces re-create the museum experience, with hands-on features designed to inspire exploration and curiosity. Nooks and crannies allow learners to find their own spaces and comfort zone.

“This is about inspiring a love of learning, and oftentimes that spark can happen with memorable moments in these early learning settings,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw. “Students feel like they have that ability to belong when the spaces are designed to excite and engage them.”

The completed libraries are very different, but they share many attributes. The student-centric approach developed spaces to support different types of learning and exploration. Without funds to radically change the buildings, the renovations bolster the district’s efforts to improve literacy and create more community-friendly environments. Instead of rows of books, the spaces invite students to engage in different ways, encouraging them to find what they care about.

Moving beyond traditional book stacks, the libraries were designed to encourage students to develop their own space for reading and exploring.

“I love how student-friendly and student-centered the spaces are,” Koch says. “They are designed for students to crawl in and read a book and get comfortable rather than just check out a book and take it back to their desk. The space has changed behavior!”

The library renovations have proven popular with students and educators. As design progressed in the initial group, Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD commissioned five more campuses for library upgrades, ultimately impacting over 7,500 students across the district.