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Trustees dump on new high school design jargon

‘Learning commons’ replace libraries as ‘central node’

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The Hamilton public school board’s initial run at designing new high schools on the south Mountain and by the new Pan Am stadium is being criticized for leaving plain language on the sidelines.

Despite approving 14 “guiding principles” for the architectural plans, some trustees struggled last week to make sense of their bureaucratic jargon and lack of reference to libraries, gymnasiums or sports fields.

Scheduled to open in September 2016, the new schools will have all of the latter amenities, although their libraries will be called learning commons, defined as “a fully integrated and central node for formal and informal study.”

Their designs will be also be “flexible, adaptable and robust” when it comes to things like “eating spaces,” “collaborative settings” and “exemplary learning environments.”

East Mountain trustee Laura Peddle, who cast the lone opposing vote, said she couldn’t support the guiding principles because they don’t “say anything to me” and she’d be hard pressed to explain them to the public.

The principles will be incorporated into a design manual for the schools’ eventual architectural plans, expected to be approved by the end of June.

“I don’t know how to interpret these words and I’m sitting around this table,” Peddle said. “Make them not edu-speak. Make them for the people that are going to use them, for the kids that are going to use them.”

Central Mountain trustee Lillian Oban meanwhile needed assurance the schools will have libraries, questioning the use of the term learning commons when told it reflects the broader range of resources in a digital age.

“That’s what I call a library. A library usually means equipment, books, computers,” she said. “Just give me the language.”

But Judith Bishop, whose finance committee recommended the principles, said they will guide architects and aren’t meant for public consumption.

“Every one of these words means something,” the trustee for wards 1 and 2 said. “This is not the concrete stuff. These are the big, overriding views of where we’re going to be going.”

Maureen O’Shaughnessy of CS&P Architects, the Toronto firm that helped draft the principles, said they reflect the input from students, trustees, principals, teachers and operations staff.

She said the repeated use of the phrase “flexible, robust and adaptable” is intended to ensure that school spaces “have many opportunities for ease of change” and won’t, for instance, require walls to be torn apart to wire up new technology.

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