Inspirational Learning Center – Designing with Heart

Today I was treated to a personal tour of Palm Academy on Coronado Island in San Diego. Palm is devoted to helping at-risk students who are struggling with the traditional program at Coronado High School. Palm is a school of last resort. Not the kind of place you’d expect to see traditional district officials and/or bureaucrats investing a lot of time or money. Not the place you’d send one of your best and brightest administrators and certainly not a place for the faint-hearted. However, the vibe at Palm is noticeably different from other continuation high schools. First of all, Principal Kevin Nicolls is different than your regular principal. A kite boarder, rock climber and snowboarder, Kevin wears t-shirts and shorts to school on most days. Kevin spent several years working in the educational sector of the juvenile justice system. He is also working on a dissertation in Educational Technology. Kevin spent his late teens and his twenties in Coronado and in fact, used to take Auto Shop and Pottery classes in the space that Palm now occupies. Kevin also serves as Faculty Advisor to the Coronado High School Sailing Team, sits on the Student Support Team and serves as the Administrative Tech Leader for the district. Kevin is independent, and some might say, provocative when it comes to his views on education. When Kevin talks about the vision for the Palm Campus, he lights up. He talks about bringing together stakeholders to ensure a quality learning space representing the needs of students, staff, parents and community members. He talks about the importance of retaining original architectural elements. He talks about the importance of natural lighting, of flow and of making sure there were enough windows both internal and external to allow for learning to permeate through the walls. He talks about ensuring plenty of gathering spaces for informal and formal learning. He proudly shows off the hard hats that all the students wore to symbolize their role in the design and building process. Looking at the plaque at the entrance to the school, you can see the personal touch in the names and monikers. Things like Kevin Nicolls, ringleader and Joyce, grandmother and dream facilitator. Somehow, in this small space he has squeezed in offices, classrooms, a culinary arts kitchen, garden beds, a basketball court, multiple seating areas, storage and bathrooms! Amazingly books are stored above the 10 foot line in custom built shelves, accessible by an attached, sliding, library ladder. The two white boards slide up and down, one behind the other – an idea from a student. The technology system is incredible and includes 20 desktops, a multimedia ceiling projector, video, audio, and a sound field system. The students have everything they need for the type of individualized and cooperative learning that takes place at Palm. Somehow when you walk through the campus, you feel the mana – the deep spirit of love and energy that came from those who worked together to create this magical learning space for the kinds of children who need it the most. I was inspired by the vision, the out of the box thinking from the outset, the execution of the design and of course the aesthetics of the finished product. If you are thinking about designing and building a new school facility, you should definitely make a visit to Palm Academy.

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