FOREST PARK — Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited State of Ohio data showing graduation rates dropping at Winton Woods. Raw data shows rates have increased. We've corrected the article and apologize for the error.
Students returning to Winton Woods City Schools on Monday will be entering two new campuses, built using their recommendations -- which means some things are very different.
Imagine school without a traditional cafeteria.
"My friend is transferring here ... and I keep telling her, it's a whole new environment," said junior Allahnah Dedrick.
The district's $30 million, 206,000 square-foot South Campus on Farragut Road opens for the first time when classes start Monday. It houses first through sixth grades, some 1600 students. Students in grades 7-12 started using the $44 million, 248,000 square foot North Campus on West Kemper Road in the spring.
Taxpayers approved the construction, passing a levy in 2016.
Dedrick transferred to the district a few years ago and has been active in student council, as final designs for the two new campuses took shape. She and her classmates helped drive some of the design.
"They really wanted their voice to be part of the process," said Steve Denny, the district's executive director of business affairs. "[Distributed dining] actually started with a very practical need. Students told us 'we don't have enough time to eat sometimes.'"
Instead, both campuses have multiple food windows and lines throughout, with booths and mixed-height tables nearby. Near the main kitchen, large steps the district calls "learning stairs" provide places to sit and plug laptops in so students can continue to work. Food moves from the main kitchen to a couple other serving locations via warming carts.
"Students told us they wanted the eating space to feel like a Starbucks or a Chipotle, not like a dining hall," Denny said.
The decision also meant savings – in time and money.
"If you think about it, a cafeteria is 12,000-13,000 square feet for a building this size and it still has to be cleaned, still has to be heated, still has to be maintained and it's not being used 70 percent of the day," Denny said. "If you really sit back and analyze the amount of instructional time lost moving back and forth from a cafeteria, it's hours a year."
Beyond the numbers, there's a social change when you get rid of a large central cafeteria. Remember the anxiety of figuring out where to sit – and who to sit with – on the first day of school? That's gone.
"It really determines where I sit all year," laughed Dedrick. "[Now] they can trust us to sit wherever we want to, and that's what we thrive on is trust, respect, and responsibility. It feels like they're dialing down and saying, 'You don't need to be babysat.'"
'There are educational systems inside the campus'
The opportunity for students to collaborate and work through the lunch period by eating in classrooms or together at smaller tables plays into a larger curriculum change at Winton Woods, which also drove design of the buildings.
"People keep talking about working outside of the box, right? But we keep building the box," said superintendent Anthony G. Smith. "So if you keep building the box, you can't work outside of the box. We took a chance and said we're going to work outside of the box and we built outside of the box."
The new campuses feature clusters of classrooms and labs and shared spaces, called small learning communities. Teachers no longer "own" one classroom, but work in shared spaces designed to look and function like popular co-working spaces within their learning community.
"It's really cool because as a pod, or as an SLC, we get to decide who has what class and what space would work best for them," said freshman teacher Hannah Van Dyke, a Winton Woods alumnus. "So, I don't stay in the same room every day. I move depending on what would work best."
The pods feature large classroom seminar spaces, which can be divided into smaller rooms. Plus, there is a central shared space with labs and meeting rooms surrounding it. Student lockers are in this space, too. Some classes are co-taught and last through two bells instead of one.
Van Dyke said she's most excited about a new class she's been planning with a colleague, called Physical Science and Algebraic Properties (PSAP).
"It's a combined algebra I and physical sciences class," she said. "We are so excited for it."
Winton Woods is part of the New Tech Network's project-based learning curriculum, which teaches concepts using real-world applications and situations. Students give dozens of presentations on such projects each year.
"Project-based learning is all over the country, but what you traditionally do is take a kid and you put them in the environment instead of building the environment for them," said superintendent Smith. "That's what makes us unique."
Van Dyke graduated from Winton Woods with a project-based learning education.
"Even if they don't use the specific content after this class, or if they don't see the application, the skill sets that they're learning – like collaboration, working with other people, critical thinking – all of this is going to help them after they leave," she said.
The results of Winton Woods' educational shift depend on what metrics you look at or consider important.
According to the most recent Ohio School Report Card, the graduation rate in the district is high - at 90.2% over four years and rising.
The district's 2018-2019 report card gave it an "F" for "achievement" and "prepared for success." The district still struggled in "improving at-risk K-3 readers," though it had more than doubled it's percentage from the prior school year.
The 2019-2020 state report cards are incomplete because of COVID-19 and its impact on the last school year.
"We don't mind the challenges. We know how the state rates us, we know what the system says," superintendent Smith said. "But we are actually busting at the seams. We have more students enrolled now than ever before. So, people want this experience."
Smith also pointed to the diversity of the student population as a challenge to meeting some state standards. There are 32 languages spoken in the district, represented by 32 flags that now fly in the North Campus.
"If a child comes from Guatemala, they have to be caught up to speed and be tested, regardless of if they have language barriers," he said.
The 2018-2019 report card showed the district meeting 70.7% of metrics set for "gap closing," for those so-called vulnerable students, which was an improvement from prior years.
Smith also noted the district's five-star-rated pre-school program. The district website touts 96 percent of third-graders met the requirements for the state's reading guarantee.
Then, Smith points you to students like Allahnah Dedrick, the junior who wants to be a lawyer and who helped give feedback on the new campuses' design.
"There aren't many precedents for what's been done here," said Jeff Parker, architect and educational planner with SHP. "So, really, our inspiration came from the kids."
Plans for the new campuses can be traced back to 2010, when another architecture firm hired by the State of Ohio told the district all of its buildings needed replacing, according to Denny.
"We have a literal formal group of students that was advising us and then we would take that to a core group of parents and staff," he said.
Both campuses are LEED Gold certified. But the students had some other ideas, requesting more natural light, more flexibility with lunch, and spaces to do what they call "show and tell" to co-workers on their projects.
"We're seeing across the state and across the country that the old sort of industrial model of learning doesn't suit our students anymore," Parker said.
For Parker, the design process was personal. He graduated in 1986, from what was then the Forest Park Chargers. Now, he said, he felt proud of the chance to come home and make a transformational change.
"I think these campuses will be a driving force in this community," he said. "And I think it's good for alumni when they come back to see something that is thriving and not a sealed copy of what they grew up in. It's grown and evolved and become better."