Newmark Education consists of two New Jersey-based, state approved, private schools for children with special needs. It’s remarkable, not just for its mission to provide exceptional learning opportunities for special education students, but for its perfect marriage of smart classroom design and technology.
“Typical [classroom] spaces are not modernized, says Dr. Regina Peter, co-founder and executive director at Newmark Schools.
They don’t promote seamless collaboration and can be especially prohibitive to special needs students.
“The furniture is inflexible, meaning you are in a solid chair that has no give or you’re in a desk that may be attached to your chair. Those things are uncomfortable for typical kids, but the typical kid can work through that. They can filter that out. When you’re dealing with special needs kids, many of them have sensory issues. If there’s too much stimulation, they’re going to be overwhelmed by that,” she says.
At Newmark, classroom seating is flexible. Chairs and desks are on wheels. Every classroom has laptops or tablets for students to access as needed, as well as content sharing technology known as a media:scape. Classrooms are built for comfort and to promote the kind of informal collaboration exhibited in the workforce today. That type of comfort is key when you’re talking about students with special needs.
A child with sensory issues performs better in a classroom that has a clean, neat appearance and that is functional, meaning everything has a purpose or a place. Technology should be seamless without wires or dangling cords strewn across the classroom floor and furniture should be flexible.
“I personally feel that special needs classrooms and typical classrooms should all be designed in the same way, but we’re behind the eight ball in so many districts,” says Peter.
A Space That Supports Collaboration
Traditional classroom spaces do not support collaboration easily. Desks are often in rows and must physically be picked up or dragged across the room when working in groups. Often technology is something that is handed out to students to be used at specific times and is not viewed as an extension of the classroom space itself. The room that Steelcase Education designed for Newmark is the antithesis of that.
“The design of the room was to get technology integrated and for it to be as much a part of the room as simply picking up a pen,” says Cynthia Allman, Co-founder and executive director at Newmark Schools.
The classrooms feature the Steelcase Node chair, which is basically a chair on wheels that includes a personal workspace that swivels in tandem with the seat when moved. Teachers have pneumatic tables that allow them to work at various heights. There is also a Steelcase media:scape interactive center that consists of a table, built-in plugs and displays that allow students to connect laptops or tablets to share content seamlessly and project their screen onto a larger display.
“They’re all able to see at the same time as opposed to standing behind each other looking at a smaller laptop screen,” says Allman.
Classrooms also contain informal learning spaces that resemble lounge furniture. It’s a spot where students can get together and brainstorm much like you would in a meeting. The idea behind this set up is to prepare students for college and the workplace where things don’t always happen in a structured environment.
“Very often nowadays, the way corporations are working, you might be working from home or meeting colleagues at a Starbucks,” says Peter. “You might be part of a team where you have to negotiate these spaces that don’t look like traditional desks and traditional offices.”
Newmark wants students to be prepared to deal with those situations and to navigate them in a way that is socially acceptable.
Finding the Perfect Solution
Newmark has been using its Steelcase products for about a year now. They were implemented as part of a major construction project that saw the two schools move into a new building that was completely gutted and reconstructed as a state-of-the-art space. A two story addition and a gymnasium were also built as part of the project. Before construction, Newmark was set up like a traditional school where technology use was less self-directed.
“Historically, we had laptops on carts and we’d have to push the cart around between classrooms,” says Allman. “Now we have laptops or tablets in every single classroom. It’s there when the student needs it and they just go and get it.”
In fact, the unique and collaborative nature of Newmark classrooms has done a lot to engage students and inspire them to learn.
“Getting out of that row mentality has been transformative for these kids,” says Allman. “Especially our kids on the Autism spectrum. We’re finding that they’re more engaged verbally because they can see who they are talking to and they’re kind of challenged to look at the person they are speaking to. It has forced them to engage more with people as opposed to just having to negotiate their space.”