Sunday, April 7, 2013

Determinative Architecture and the Roberto Clemente School

Is determinative architecture even a term?

I'm trying to use a phrase that says that architecture can determine a building's uses. Take your nearest cathedral. The architect tries to give you a soaring, celestial feeling with those high arches and stained glass windows.
An interior northeast view of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. By Jnolan14 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Now imagine how classes might flow in a school built in the sixties or seventies with partial walls and everyone facing into a central pod for a media center. (This could describe the new part of Ann Arbor Open or Logan Elementary.)

Logan Elementary, picture from, Ann Arbor Public Schools

Compare that to the high walls and solid building of Eberwhite, Bach, or the oldest part of Ann Arbor Open at Mack. Not only are the halls and classrooms much quieter than in the "open" structure, but the building itself also causes teachers and students to act differently.

The older part of Ann Arbor Open at Mack. By Dwight Burdette (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

When my oldest son was in kindergarten at what was then Bach Open School (at Bach), the kindergarten/first grade teacher had a very large room. There was plenty of room for a very large set of blocks that were a kid favorite.
I took these from Those large blocks looked something like these.

Between my son's kindergarten and first grade years, the Open School moved to Mack. The classrooms in the newer part of the building were much smaller. Goodbye blocks :(

The Roberto Clemente Building

The Roberto Clemente program was conceived of in 1973 and became reality in 1974. Its original name was the Alternative School for Disruptive Youth [Flattering! I'm sure that attracted lots of kids!].

Early on the name was changed to honor Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates player who died in a plane crash on his way to a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua after the devastating 1972 earthquake. [Fun factoid about my family--my oldest son early on adopted Roberto Clemente's number as his own for his baseball jersey, and my youngest son has followed that tradition. That's #21, in case you didn't know.]

The Roberto Clemente program was located way out of town for many years. According to this history, it was located at Meadowview Elementary on Textile Road in Pittsfield Township. I remember wondering if the building was even within the school district boundaries.

Roberto Clemente School, built in 1994; taken from the Pittsfield Township Historical Society web site

Plans for the current location were developed in the early 1990s, and the Roberto Clemente school building opened in 1994. When the plans were developed, Joe Dulin, the principal and founder, had in mind one key trait: class size. Knowing that there was a risk that class sizes would rise, he intentionally worked to keep the room sizes small, because he believed--and, I should say, still believes (he has spoken recently at a school board meeting) that small class sizes are the key to the school's success. Make the rooms small, he thought, and you can't really make the classes too large.

They also, intentionally, built the school off of bus routes.

Roberto Clemente is a school where many of the kids have failed in other school settings. Roberto Clemente is a school where many of the kids come from low-income households, thus it is a Title I school. Roberto Clemente is also a school with many kids who qualify for special education services. All of those things add to the per-pupil cost of the school, which today is approximately twice that of the comprehensive high schools. (Title I designation and special education funds though, are revenue streams into the school as well.) But undoubtedly, the key reason that the school's per-pupil costs are so high is that the classes are so small--and the school itself is small.

Class sizes are generally 15 kids or fewer, and. . . here is the kicker. . . if the school wanted to lower their per-pupil costs, they would need to make the class sizes larger. The classrooms, however, are meant to fit class sizes of 15 students or fewer. The architecture determines the use.

You see where this is going, right? It's a bit of a Catch-22. In order to be successful, the classes need to be small, but in order to lower the schools' costs, the class sizes would likely need to be larger. Yet the current building structure will not allow that (at least, not without significant renovations).

If the school were to move, would the class sizes balloon? Would the school (or in this case, the program) still be able to effectively serve those students?

Joe Dulin's plan seemed like a good one in 1994 (pre-Proposal A). With the threat of the program's elimination or with potential plans that the school be moved to Ann Arbor Tech or Pioneer, does it seem like a good plan now?

1 comment:

  1. I attended the budget forum at Slauson last week, and quite a few people spoke about some issues related to moving the Clemente program into Pioneer. One of them is the use separate entrance idea raising specters of "separate but equal" segregation. Another is the fact that the wing they are proposing to use is already used, so those classes will be displaced, increasing class sizes at Pioneer and/or eliminating some electives. All these people thought Clemente was valuable but that Pioneer was not the best location.

    Interestingly (in light of the critique of central admin arising from your superintendant survey), the board members seemed completely taken off guard by these critiques. It seems they had accepted the building evaluation report at face value, but nobody had bothered to talk to Pioneer staff to see if that vision met up with lived reality.

    Back to your analysis: the thing that strikes me about the "off the bus routes" component of the vision is that Pioneer seems the worst location to achieve that goal! You can ditch school and walk to all sorts of 'interesting' places from there, and catch numerous buses. Skyline, on the other hand (which was being offered as a better alternative b/c of less overcrowding) is relatively isolated. Isn't the only bus that serves it, the special bus (18A?) that goes out there because students need transportation? Even Huron is more isolated than Pioneer.

    Many people were also commenting that class size (keeping it small) needed to be a driving factor in the budget negotiations.