Cultivating a New Generation of Leaders

by Stefee Knudsen

How do we cultivate our future leaders? It’s a core question for educators and one that ultimately influences the design of schools. Two projects in Portland, the Oregon Episcopal School’s Lower School and the French American International School’s new Gilkey International Middle School, illustrate how new environments can help to advance institutional missions.

Leading the Way

An independent school founded in 1869, the Oregon Episcopal School (OES) has guided the education of its students for nearly 150 years, evolving through periods of profound social and technological advances. In recent years, this has meant a pedagogical shift towards an active learning approach, preparing students to excel in a world that embraces collaboration and less hierarchical ideas of leadership. In contrast to lecture-based models, active and inquiry-based learning empowers students by encouraging them to ask questions and explore ideas and subjects in their own way, developing core language and critical thinking skills in the process. The program’s success led teachers to imagine a new kind of classroom building for its pre-kindergarten to fifth graders.

Active Programming

Walk into the new Lower School at OES, and it is immediately clear why active learning needs a different kind of building. Instead of hushed hallways and closed classrooms, the “affinity” commons on each floor are buzzing with students. With their storefront-like windows, the classrooms are intimately connected with the commons, yet provide some necessary separation.

Although the solution seems obvious now, the idea of the commons took time to emerge. To help give shape to the teachers’ vision, our design team took a cue from active learning’s open-ended, hands-on approach. We spent a week embedded in the classroom observing teachers and students at work and asking questions along the way. Through this process we defined the central problem: How can an environment promote active learning with an age group that still needs a lot of coaching and supervision?

The breakthrough came during an exercise using blocks and bubbles representing typical uses, such as classrooms, storage, and support space. As the teachers moved around the blocks, testing relationships between uses, it became clear what was needed was a hybrid environment of generous, flexible, in-between space and more formal classrooms that allowed the classes to work as a connected community.

Connecting inside and out

The commons are nested between four bars containing classrooms and other uses—slightly offset and splayed to capture campus views and add a sense of dynamism within the building. Class cohorts are organized in affinity groups around the commons to strengthen camaraderie: students and teachers always have a view to what others are doing. The spaces are light-filled and finished in pragmatic materials like concrete floors that invite experimentation, creativity, and messiness. The three-story building is nestled into the sloping landscape with entries and exterior stairs positioned to strengthen connections with the campus. Designed for optimal natural ventilation and daylight, the than its predecessor and enhances water and wetland conservation.


Teaching by example

At the French American International School (FAIS), plans for the new Gilkey International Middle School focused on a “future forward” strategy for organizational resiliency. It’s a vision that goes beyond operational issues to consider long-term adaptability, environmental stewardship, and leadership development, all with an eye towards FAIS’s mission of cultivating actively engaged global citizens prepared to lead positive change. As a middle school serving sixth through eighth graders, a priority was providing a range of spaces where students could socialize and work independently, spaces lacking in their current complex of modular buildings. Optimizing the use of the narrow site by providing a high level of flexibility was another goal.

Tailored Yet flexible

The L-shaped building hugs the wooded campus edge, evoking the idea of a “nurse log,” a fallen tree limb full of nooks inhabited by different critters. The single-loaded plan of each wing alternates in orientation, with flexible spaces engaging the campus to the north and reveling in the quiet woods to the west. The classroom wings are joined by a social hub where students will gather for lunch or special events, and cross paths between classes.

Understanding how teachers work led to a more efficient program. While both students and teachers change classrooms throughout the day, teachers maintained assigned desks that were not always in the room where they are teaching. Separating teachers’ desks in a thin bar of office “pods” provided teachers with more consistent access to their base while allowing for more compact classrooms.

With its far-reaching goals for sustainability and building performance, including the Energy Trust of Oregon’s Path to Net Zero program, the middle school also will lead by example, underscoring FAIS’s values and mission.


Educational institutions at all levels are repositioning to prepare students to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Strategically aligning facilities to support new pedagogies is like ; it enhances performance for both students and teachers and can increase operational efficiency as well. As architects we can identify commonalities and apply lessons learned, but every new client and site bring a distinct set of considerations. There is no shortcut to taking time the time to dive deep and uncover the unique opportunity each project represents.

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Cultivating a New Generation of Leaders

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How do we cultivate our future leaders? It’s a core question for educators and one that ultimately influences the design of schools. Two projects in Portland, the Oregon Episcopal School’s Lower School and the French American International School’s new Gilkey International Middle School, illustrate how new environments can help to advance institutional missions.

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