Bringing staff and student voices into the school design process

When the class of 2021 at Putnam City High School was asked where they wanted to hold their prom, district administrators were anticipating suggestions for a variety of picturesque venues around Oklahoma City.

But their request was a pleasant surprise to staff — the students chose to hold prom at nearby James L. Capps Middle School, a then-new building in Putnam City Schools.

The school, which opened in 2020, sits on 38 acres and features a spring-fed creek that runs under a glass skybridge connecting different wings of the building. With its tall glass windows and large indoor gathering areas, Capps is a source of pride for the community.

“It has become a destination for all of our schools,” said Putnam Superintendent Fred Rhodes. “It’s just off-the-charts cool.”

The enthusiasm for the building can be traced to the district’s efforts to include student and staff voice in the school design process, Rhodes said.

Students and staff “live in the building day-in and day-out. They know what is important to them and what will work,” he said. “When you are involved in design, it fits what you need.”

As districts across the country renovate schools or build new ones, they are more frequently using formal ways to gather input from the people most connected to the spaces — the staff and students.

In some ways, that feedback process can slow the pace of a project, architect firms and school administrators say. But mostly it’s a positive trend, they add, because it ensures confidence that the new spaces will get maximum use.

Creating spaces ideal for core academic learning is the main driver behind school design and the efforts to gather input. But nonacademic elements, such as cultural and whole-child support features, are also emerging at the request of school communities.

Eastside Early College High School in Austin, Texas, sits on the site of the former L.C. Anderson High School, which was opened for 82 years before closing in 1971 as part of desegregation efforts. 

Permission granted by Dror Baldinger


Texas’ Austin Independent School District, for instance, opened the relocated Eastside Early College High School in 2021 with modernized spaces that also highlight the school’s historic significance in the community. The school was built on the site of the original L.C. Anderson High School, which served Austin’s African American community for 82 years before closing in 1971 as part of desegregation efforts.

The school’s hilltop site offers views of Austin’s business district, and a walking path connects it to Austin Community College. Other highlights are a community center within the school and a gallery featuring L.C. Anderson High School’s history and items of historic significance.

Global design firm Perkins & Will worked with the district on the design, as well as with the George Washington Carver Museum and Austin History Center to help create visuals of the L.C. Anderson school’s history that are displayed inside the campus, according to the district.

Here, we give a closer look at how the design of two schools incorporated community input.

Capps Middle School

Rhodes says that as much as he visits schools in his role as Putnam superintendent, he doesn’t know exactly what students and staff need unless he asks them.

For the construction of Capps Middle School, which houses about 900 students in grades 6-8, two separate bonds approved by voters helped fund the build, Rhodes said. The design process began in 2017, and the project cost just over $48 million.

An overview from the sky of a school building

Designers and educators brought student and staff input in the development of James L. Capps Middle School in Warr Acres, Oklahoma, which opened in 2020 and has become a source of pride for the community.

Permission granted by DLR Group and Michael Robinson


To collect feedback from stakeholders, the district worked with design firm DLR Group on outreach to not just the then-middle school students, but also to elementary and high school students.

Many of those providing input asked for a variety of spaces where they could work independently, in small groups, and in larger classes, Rhodes said.

“What you see today in Capps Middle School is a school that truly is flexible, because you can go to a space by yourself and work on a project or an assignment, or you can go out into a more open area and meet with a group for collaboration,” he said.

Another suggestion led to teacher workrooms being put in each of the school’s three grade-level sections — or “neighborhoods.” This design puts the teachers and administrators for each grade closer to their classrooms, and students can more easily seek out their teachers for supports, Rhodes said.

The workrooms also provide grade-level teachers with space for planning and collaboration, he said. In past school designs he’s familiar with, teachers would often stay in one classroom all day and use that classroom as their workspace and for teaching — leaving them little opportunity to mix with colleagues.

“You’re going to get a better product if you give people an opportunity for input,” Rhodes said.

In a survey conducted by DLR Group in spring 2022, 80% of students agreed the neighborhood design made them feel like learning is valued. And 70% said that being part of a neighborhood made them want to work hard. For teachers, 75% said the neighborhood design helped students take part in collaborative learning projects.

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