ROCK SPRING, Ga. - From a nearby dirt road, the new $15 million Saddle Ridge school looks like any other construction project -- exposed outer stones and scaffolding set up around freshly built walls.
Entering the school through a rotunda, a large hallway about three times the size of a typical school hallway extends to the right and the left. While the hallway now is cluttered with piping and two-by-fours, when the two-story, 115,000-square-foot school is finished in 2013, it will push the boundaries of teaching.
This K-8 school is designed with 35-foot-wide hallways and open common areas that set Saddle Ridge apart in Walker County, but it's part of a larger idea that the design of a building can improve learning and promote collaboration, educators and architects say.
With all its open space, teachers can allow students to practice what they've learned inside the classroom and create projects that help them master core concepts. The design is created around the idea that kids pay more attention if they actually are doing something rather than sitting and listening, said Patrick Neuhoff, architect for Saddle Ridge. So, if the school wants to put on a play, the history class could research the play's context and the math class could design the stage, he said.
Walker County teachers already have been trained to collaborate and incorporate math and science into reading and language arts while using technology in the classrooms, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said.
"It's preparing students to learn more collaboration to be an effective workforce," he said.
More schools in North Georgia are moving toward the idea. In Whitfield County, three schools -- two elementary and one middle school -- were built with the open learning concept in mind.
At the Georgia Department of Education headquarters in Atlanta, a room has been set up as a model for classroom innovation so educators from school districts statewide can see the latest design and technology, department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said. Officials from across the state regularly visit the classroom, getting ideas for the future as well as tips on their current classrooms, even in tough financial times, she said in an email.
The model classroom is designed into separate sections that support a wide spectrum of learning. In one corner, flatscreen TV monitors are surrounded by large sofas, tall tables and chairs. Another area has swivel chairs in front of desks placed in front of a Smart Board.
These ideas are great tools, said Walker school board member James Smith, but the reality is school districts are facing millions of dollars in budget cuts and such ideas can be expensive. Schools in Walker County are adjusting to use the space they already have for more project-based learning, Smith said.
At Naomi Elementary School east of LaFayette, Principal Debbie Ingle has challenged her teachers to use empty classrooms -- created when teachers weren't replaced after budget cuts -- for more collaborative teaching.
Ingle said she saw the spaces as minicomputer labs, but she was surprised when her teachers came back with more-creative ideas. The fourth-grade teachers turned their room into a reading workshop where all three classes meet before students split up to work on their own.
"The kids look forward to it," she said, pointing out that the school system is only on the ninth day of the new year.
Because such innovative approaches already are being used in extra spaces at other Walker County schools, teachers who transfer to Saddle Ridge should be able to make the switch easily, the superintendent said.