By Andrew Cluley
Ann Arbor Public Schools is moving ahead with the next steps to transform the classroom environment to increase student choice and movement. The Board of Education has approved phase two and three of purchasing new classroom furniture thanks to funds raised by the community approving the 2015 Bond.
In phase one, 14 elementary and middle schools received new classroom furniture either in the spring or over the summer. Phase two will provide new furniture to eight additional elementary schools and Ann Arbor Open. The new furniture will be installed over the winter break and costs approximately $3.5 million dollars.
The new classroom furniture is more flexible than traditional school desks so teachers and students can easily reconfigure the classroom to work in small groups or other formations. Chairs and stools are also designed to enable students to wiggle as well, which helps many students maintain focus on their education. Executive Director of Elementary Education Dawn Linden says the schools that have already received the new furniture are sharing a lot of positive reviews. “I visited all of those schools, I’ve talked to the teachers, they’re very excited about it and the kids love it,” Linden says.
The new furniture has also so far proven to be of high quality. “14 schools that now have VS furniture and we had maybe nine desks show up with a crack, so they are amazing,” says Linden.
It’s not surprising that the new furniture is getting positive reviews, since the district purchased a variety of choices to pilot in classrooms last fall after a committee of staff and community members establish criteria for what they want Ann Arbor Public Schools classrooms to look like. Superintendent Jeanice Swift says it’s important to get everyone involved before making a decision on the furniture that should be in place for decades to come. “We feel like we need to use the furniture, get student feedback, get teacher feedback, and then move toward a decision that is a larger order,” Swift says.
Phase three of the project starts with a similar effort to test out possible choices at the high school level. The Board of Education approved $355,000 for the purchase of furniture from Steelcase and VS America for model classrooms in each of the district’s high schools. Linden says this will include some items that are unlikely to be purchased for high schools right now, but can be tested now if additional funds become available in the future. Like with the elementary and middle school pilot classrooms the teachers, students and community members will get a chance to provide feedback over the fall, with a recommendation for purchase of high school furniture expected in February.
School Board Trustee Simone Lightfoot says good feedback came in from phase one, but she thinks high school students may be able to provide even better information. “I really look forward to hearing the high schoolers, because they’re virtually grown people and they could really give us some insight,” Lightfoot says.
While the new furniture is exciting for students, staff, and community members, Ann Arbor Public Schools is also making sure existing furniture is being properly handled as well. Per district policy, furniture that can still be used by AAPS stays within the district. If the district has no needs for furniture that is still in good shape it will be sold, and finally the items in the worst shape are donated.
Linden says the team that installed the new furniture has also helped make sure furniture that can’t be sold will end up helping schools elsewhere. “Helped us with the furniture that we could not sell, which was significant because it was so old, has helped us to get that furniture donated to countries in areas where there’s a high need,” Linden says. “Where they’re building schools but can’t afford to furnish them, so schools in Haiti, and schools in South America, and Central America.”