Nearly impoverished Bertie County, North Carolina, has 20,000 people or 10 people per square kilometer. The county seat contains more buildings in disrepair and blight than are occupied, with fewer than ten restaurants, and no bookstores, cafes, or theatres. The county contained zero licensed architects.
The public education system has a shortage of qualified teachers. Few people in the county have a college degree, and less than a third of the students between third and eighth grades were passing state minimums in English and math.
Yet this primarily agricultural area is slowly morphing from a “rural ghetto” into a progressive community classroom. How?
With the help of Project H, a non-profit cooperative formed specifically to enhance the public education system through community design and architecture projects.
“This is a story about public education and rural communities and what design might to do improve both,” Project H founder Emily Pilloton said in a TED Talks presentation.
In 2009 Doctor Chip Zullinger, a superintendent known for success with charter schools across the country who’d been asked to help the county’s school district, invited Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller to bring a design perspective to the repair of the school district. The duo’s then architecture-and community-development-based firm eventually relocated its San Francisco offices to the town of Windsor in Bertie County, and Pilloton and Miller earned teaching certificates to holistically manifest Zullinger’s vision. They then formed the Studio H, a design/build curriculum that connects education with real-world, creative projects in rural community development within the high school.
“Design offers an antidote to all of the boring, rigid verbal instruction that so many of these school districts are plagued by. It’s hands-on, it’s in-your-face, it requires an active engagement, and it allows kids to apply all the core subject learning in real ways,” said Pilloton. (Find out more of what she said on The Colbert Report.)
First came renovation of the school’s computer labs, where teachers and students use the space to heighten their experience, rather than adding more trailers for them to study in. The next involved collaborating with teachers to devise an outdoor “learning landscape”, a link between physical education and classroom education activities.
“It allows elementary level students to learn core subjects through game play and activity and running around and screaming and being a kid,” Pilloton said. Students now learn basic multiplication, for instance, by playing team games. Some of the classes and teachers have reported higher test scores and a greater comfort level with the material.
“It’s hand-on instruction that requires active engagement and allows them to apply core-subject learning in real ways. It’s an evolution of shop class, which is usually taught to students who aren’t going on to college. Now it’s more than building bird houses and instead working on projects the community actually needs,” she said.
Thirteen high school students work with Pilloton and Miller in one-year terms to learn six core principles of design and development: designing through action; designing with, not for; designing systems, not stuff; documenting, sharing, and measuring; starting locally and scaling globally; and building. The students implement these processes in a new 4,500-square-foot studio designed and built by Project H. Here they perform research and design visualization, prototype their designs, and determine the efficacy of their own designs. They then materialize actual projects for the community, such as the Windsor Super Market.
Students meanwhile earn high school and college credits for these projects and income for their work in actually building the pavilion that became the super market, already in use by farmer’s market vendors. During the previous school year the students interviewed community members in preparation for the market. They determined what kinds of foods they ate, what was easily accessible, and what better sources of food were necessary and desirable. It opened on a morning in October (2011) when some of the high school students— whose hands, sweat, and minds had brought the vernacular architecture to life— were taking their SATs.
This summer the students actually built the 2,000-square-foot market, their first large-scale project. (An earlier project included chicken coops given away to families after the town experienced a destructive flood. Future potential projects under consideration are bus shelters that double as farmers markets, which would create a network between Windsor and outlying towns.)
Skills used during these projects emphasize those the students learn in their English, social studies, history, math, and natural sciences classes, Pilloton said, harking back to the holistic quality of the district’s program.
“We feel like this could work in other places,” Pilloton said.
Studio H demonstrates sustainability in a way that Windsor and Bertie County denizens can recognize. It’s the very kind of sustainability that continues to show for generations.
This article originally published in Perspective magazine.