Transforming Student Learning in the Parkway Building

Designed by James Bradberry Architects, Friends Select’s newly transformed Parkway Building spaces are modern and inviting. However, the state-of-the-art design of the new lower school classrooms, art studio, and lobby is deeply rooted in Friends Select’s commitment to excellence in teaching and learning and best practices in education.

“The transformation of the lower school reflects Friends Select’s embrace of research and best practices in teaching,” said lower school director Dave Younkin. “Our teaching is always evolving, but some of our physical spaces had not been keeping the same pace. We needed to rethink and re-envision our Parkway Building and how it could evolve for the future of the school.”

The design of the new lower school classrooms reflects an apprenticeship model that facilitates a workshop setting in which the teacher is perceived as an expert craftsman. Mini-lessons begin with the whole class in a larger meeting area within the room, after which students move about the space to practice their new skill and guide that particular practice. Lessons end with the class returning to their first meeting area to share work. “Students have agency in their learning, and are able to choose a space within the classroom where they can do their best work. That might mean sitting on a couch, lying on a rug, standing at a high countertop, or sitting upright at a table,” Dave explained. “This is just one of the many ways we work to meet the unique needs of each child.” Additionally, the new spaces highlight the school’s Quaker ethos, with the whole group meeting area also facilitating “meeting  for community,” a place for building connections and engaging children in problem-solving around community issues.

Friends Select’s new lower school art studio, the Gilroy Roberts Art Studio, was inspired by the children’s studio at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts. The Gilroy Roberts Art Studio highlights the presentation of art techniques, and features a large demonstration table and tables that can be easily moved and reconfigured based on the lesson and class size. Sinks that are installed at a low height are accessible to the school’s youngest learners, and they encourage students to be independent and responsible for their art materials. Visual clutter, which can be a distraction in classrooms, is reduced thanks to closed cabinet storage. “The window wall provides inspiration for those arriving to the room, as students move mindfully into the space, settle in for lesson introduction and discussion, and move onto material and technique demonstration, creative time, clean-up and dismissal,” said lower school art teacher Dan Deslaurier, whose 20 years at Friends Select served as a resource during the design of the studio. “My experience regarding the flow of student learning and movement during their class time was certainly incorporated into the new studio.”

Additionally, the Gilroy Roberts Art Studio’s location at the front of the Parkway Building supports students on their creative journey. “The old art room was tucked into a corner of the lower school. There was no reason anyone would ever walk by it,” said Amy Segel P’18, ’20, ’23, Friends Select’s associate director of lower school and lower school math enrichment specialist. “Now that it is at the front of the building, with windows opening into the room and the room and student work on display, it communicates the importance of both our art program and young artists better than the former space.” Because the previous lower school art studio was converted from an upper school glass, jewelry, and photography studio, lower school students were learning in a space designed for older children. “The new space is intentionally designed for our younger learners,” Dan added. “The room is smaller so, by necessity, the work tables are as well. Student artists work in closer physical proximity to each other, which invites increased collaboration and support with and for each other.”

The Parkway Building’s former lobby was smallish with limited space to gather. “It certainly did not give the impression that we are a progressive school where cutting edge teaching and learning are happening. And it wasn’t ideal for a school that values making connections and forming community,” said Dave. The new lobby provides students and teachers in all divisions a large, inviting space outside of the classroom for both independent and small group work. In addition, there is an interconnectedness of the transformed spaces created by both the communal area’s location as a central point of and its sightline into the classrooms. 

“As soon as people step into the Parkway Building, whether they are a current or prospective family, they immediately get the feel of a vibrant school,” said fourth grade teacher Barry Lynch, whose class is now adjacent to the lobby. “Not only does the design of the new classrooms provide a bright and cohesive working environment for the students, but being in the new classrooms has also given the fourth graders, our oldest lower school students, a sense of pride and ownership.” 

Dave feels the placement of the new lower school classrooms and their windows into the lobby highlight the extraordinary work of Friends Select’s teachers and students. “When you walk into the building, the first thing you see is the classrooms thanks to their walls of windows, which are framing the most important things: teaching and learning,” Dave said. “As a mission-focused school working to educate the whole child, this lens into the classroom is a constant reminder of our core work and why we exist as a school.”

Dave shared the Parkway Building transformation at Fast Forward Philly in October 2021. Hosted by AIA Philadelphia Emerging Architects as part of DesignPhiladelphia, the event was part of a festival produced by the Center for Architecture and Design to highlight Philadelphia as a hub for design excellence, support economic opportunities for local designers, and demonstrate to the public the impact of design on our everyday lives. Dave was one of 10 presenters with the topic: “What’s next for Philly?”