Kaiserslautern, Wiesbaden schools catch up to the 21st century
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – After years of planning and construction, students and parents had their first glimpse inside the new Kaiserslautern High School at an open house Friday.
The state-of-the art, $74 million facility is one of two “21st-century” Department of Defense Education Activity schools set to open Monday in Europe. The other is Wiesbaden Middle School in Germany.
Rain forced festivities indoors at the new high school, built on the former Vogelweh base exchange complex, but there was still plenty to see. Upperclassmen led wide-eyed students and parents on tours of instructional areas known as “neighborhoods,” with open classrooms and movable glass walls. They peeked into science labs teeming with boxes in various stages of unpacking and gazed at the tall ceiling in a music room with sound-absorbing walls.
“This is a great atmosphere for the kids to learn,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Mitchell, the parent of an incoming junior. “Just seeing how much the school has changed, what they put into it; our tax dollars at work.”
Using technology and flexible instructional spaces, 21st-century schools are designed to support various learning environments, from small-group to project-based activities.
“As we have learned more as educators what’s good for students and the brain and how kids learn and make connections ... we’ve wanted this kind of flexibility,” whereby teachers can team up and design more interactive activities, said Sandra Whitaker, principal of Wiesbaden High School, which opened its 21st-century school last year.
“To have the facility now to support that model is really exciting.”
At Kaiserslautern, returning students said they were excited for change while still learning their way around the bright, open school that felt like a movie set.
“It reminds me of ‘High School Musical,’” said senior Raisha Hernandez, who led tours Friday with classmate Jeff Millburg.
Millburg said he liked the commons area centered around the stage.
“At our old school our cafeteria was kind of crammed, so now we have a lot of space to spread out,” he said.
Hernandez said she was excited to go to the new school “but kind of scared, because I feel like the freshmen are going to ask us where to go.”
“And we don’t know,” Millburg said.
“I know that ‘neighborhood,’ but I don’t know where the teacher is,” Hernandez said.
The neighborhoods are shared by a group of teachers, with open classrooms clustered around a small commons area, or central hub.
The classrooms are more like lecture spaces, where history might be taught one period followed by science, educators said. Teachers move around and don’t occupy the same desk at the front of the room or display their posters or other educational material, as they would in a traditional classroom.
“Everybody’s a traveler,” said Brian Manson, who teaches biology and Advanced Placement biology at Kaiserslautern.
While teachers adjust to having less personal space, the biggest challenge for students might be the open floor plan, which facilitates collaboration and flexible learning spaces but offers more distraction, educators said.
The adjustable glass walls keep out sound but not what’s going on across the neighborhood.
“It will be challenge for students ... to be in an open area to where they can see people come by,” said Kaiserslautern principal Barriett Smith. “They’re going to have to refocus on the lesson” while teachers will need “to make sure they are engaged with their students.”
Whitaker said her students adjusted quickly to the open floor plan.
“By the end of the second day of school, the glass walls are out of their minds and they are just energized by the environment,” she said. “They truly love the space.”
For teachers that were already engaged in team teaching or project-based learning, “the leap into the new facility was really exciting,” Whitaker said, “because the space now allowed for them to really extend what they were already trying to do in a more traditional structure.”
At Wiesbaden Middle School, which is DODEA’s first 21st-century middle school in Europe, principal Jackie Ferguson said that “the sky’s the limit” in a school where instruction isn’t limited by the environment. “If you wanted to do an integrative project between language arts and social studies, you no longer have to be in this room or that room; you just open the wall in between ... you have two experts working with the students in groups rather than simply one.”
Among the new features at Wiesbaden Middle School that stand out, Ferguson said, are a performance hall, a stage with state-of-the art sound and lighting, a band room with adequate practice space, a green room for video production, and high-school quality science labs.
At Kaiserslautern, everything is an improvement, as the old school operated from a converted World War II-era hospital.
A year ago, just as classes began, “the roof was caving in and we had to evacuate 28 rooms,” Smith said. “We’re going into this brand new building, which will only enhance teaching and student learning.”
Classroom areas have interactive Smart Boards and dry-erase walls. “You’re able to write on the walls … and the windows,” Smith said.
Outside the classroom, Kaiserlautern now has its own softball field, tennis courts and seats on both sides of the gym, Smith said.
Smith, who graduated from Kaiserslautern in 1976, as did two of his children a generation later, the old school holds lots of memories. Their handprints are among hundreds in the old school corridors, he said, part of a tradition where graduates left their handprints in paint on the wall. But he’s not nostalgic.
“I want the best for our kids, and this building is outstanding, and so our kids deserve the best,” Smith said.
Millburg, one of the student tour guides, said graduates of the new school will carry on the tradition of leaving their handprints behind, just not on the new white walls.
“We’re doing it on canvas,” he said.