By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
The nursery through primary school students from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools are settling into the newly-built Earl Shapiro Hall. The school was built from the ground up with pre-K through 2nd graders in mind.
Staff and faculty at the school, which was named after 1956 Lab school graduate Earl Shapiro, worked closely with designer Valerio DeWalt Train and FGM Architects and said that the new building at 5800 S. Stony Island Ave. shows evidence of their input.
Nursery and Kindergarten Principal Carla Young said Lab founder philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, who believed in the progressive education philosophy, would have loved the new building.
Dewey’s educational philosophy emphasized children’s ability to teach themselves through flexible interactions with their classmates, teachers and environment.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a building around an education program from the ground up,” Young said, comparing the school’s modern, kid-based design to the school’s former residence at Blaine Hall, 1362 E. 59th St. “John Dewey’s ideas were things we thought about when deciding how to build this exuberant space.”
Primary School Principal Susan Devetsky said the structure of the building, which includes floor-to-ceiling glass walls, helps keep the focus where it belongs, on the children.
“Having a building built just for 3 to 8 year olds we can really focus on their needs experiential learning and lots of play,” Devetsky said. “The glass structure gives a sense of unity. We can see throughout the building and we are constantly surrounded by children, which brings us closer together and reminds us of our purpose.”
Train called the modern design a “living building” that has the space to change and grow with the school over the next decade. He said in addition to having a sleek design, the LEED Silver-ranked building has many environmental and functional features that were tailor made to address the specific needs of the school.
“Acoustics were important since a [Metra] train runs right behind the school,” Train said. “We selected special grades of walls and glass to make the building sound proof.”
The colorful, light-weight pieces of furniture that have no sharp edges fill the wide open indoor community spaces. The indoor spaces are seamlessly adjacent to the outdoor community spaces, separated only by soundproof glass.
Young said the children enjoy their see-through surroundings and often wave to faculty and their siblings who are in other parts of the building.
The floor-to-ceiling glass makes good use of natural light and provides a great view of Jackson Park.
There are also steel walls throughout the building that help block out sound and also allow teachers to post, and frequently change, student projects using magnets.
The first floor of the building is where the nursery and kindergarten classes gather and the second floor is for 1st and 2nd grade children.
Each classroom has two smaller breakout session rooms for one-to-one and small group instruction, a large group space and an outside patio. The classrooms also have interactive white boards, two faculty computers and an iPad for each student.
There are also learning lab spaces on both floors that include space for whole group activities such as dancing, singing and cooking projects.
Outdoor playgrounds and green areas surround the school. The play spaces have modern playground equipment, grass hills and weeping cedar trees. After learning that playing “wall ball” was a long-held tradition of the school, Train built a wall designated solely for the purpose of playing the beloved game.
The gym, library and counselor’s offices are on the third floor.
“The school didn’t have a gym in the old space so we are so glad to have it here,” Devetsky said. “The students now have gym three times a week.”
The gym has a divider so it can be used as two rooms, the walls are sound proof and the north side of the gym has a projector screen. Devetsky said she’s not sure how the school will use the screen yet but they are glad it’s there as an option.
The library has a computer lab with 25 computers, one for each student in a class, which are comprised of 22 to 25 students to one teacher and one fulltime assistant in 1st and 2nd grade, 23 students to one teacher and one fulltime assistant in kindergarten and 22 students to one teacher and two fulltime assistants in pre-K.
Train said the library also shows Lab’s dedication to books and reading.
Devetsky said the staff requested that a specific room be built for story time. The librarians, who are also trained storytellers, now have a designated space in the library to tell stories to students.
“In the old building we would often have to close the entire library so that visitors wouldn’t disrupt the students’ storytelling time,” Devetsky said.
The third floor also has space designated for the school’s parent association and a walk-in closet-sized space with containers and drawers of carefully organized and labeled items such as empty mint tins, egg crates and plastic bottles available for anyone who needs them for special projects.
The rooftop is another outdoor play area with soft turf and chalk-friendly walls and a sky-top view of Jackson Park and the Museum of Science and Industry campus.