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A Look Inside the Newest Chicago Lab School Building

By Josh McGhee | October 9, 2013 9:10am
 The University of Chicago Laboratory School's newest building in Hyde Park focuses on open space to enhance learning.
Earl Shapiro Hall
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HYDE PARK — The newest addition to the University of Chicago Laboratory schools features tons of glass walls, flexible rooms and lots of play space that the students and teachers are still discovering how to utilize.

On Tuesday, students in the after-school program at Earl Shapiro Hall frolicked in the open play area. Some kids drew on the ground and walls with chalk, others ran around the padded rooftop, and others gathered around a praying mantis climbing on a wall of the new building in the 5800 block of South Stony Island Avenue in Hyde Park.

"We said one of the things that was very important to us was to have a space that helped bring the outside in because we wanted to have a relationship with nature and with our surroundings outside of the building. This building really allows us to do that." Carla Young, the school's nursery and kindergarten principal, said as she gave a tour of the three-floor school that opened last month.

"We put a great value on being able to be outside and be connected with the outside, so you’ll see all the first-floor classrooms have patios. The door opens into a space ... outdoors, so that was something we very much wanted to have," Young said.

The first floor holds the nursery and kindergarten classrooms, the second holds first- and second-grade classrooms and the third houses tutoring rooms, a library, gymnasium and the rooftop play area.

The gymnasium has a huge divider that can separate the room into two classrooms and a giant drop-down screen. The library features a computer lab equipped with 25 Apple computers bought this year and a private room for storytelling. The librarians have been specially trained to tell these stories.

The building's design focuses on using open space and flexibility to enhance learning for the students, who range in age from 3 to 8.

"Flexibility with the space was something that we wanted and we got that. We’re discovering how all these things work and how we can use these spaces and what they’re good for," Young said.

"Young children are very exuberant by nature for the most part. So one of the things we’re enjoying about the space is that this building absorbs a lot of exuberance because it's spacious, it's open, it's expansive ... and that's great. It allows the children to be who they are and that is something important to us."

Each classroom serves 22-24 students with a teacher and a full time assistant. The rooms have with 12 iPads, along with two desktop computers, but teachers can also apply for more technology through the principal.

Hallways are lined with steel walls to easily hang and exchange students' work using magnets. Young showed how teachers used QR codes next to students' work to "show all the work that goes into it." 

Large glass walls fill the school, allowing you to see the play areas, across Stony Island Avenue or into other classrooms. The glass walls were built with acoustics in mind to help mask the noise from the railroad tracks behind the school and the busy street in front of it.

Susan Devetski, principal of the primary school, said the walls actually bring the school community together.

"It provides almost a sense of unity because as we’re walking through the halls, you’ll see that we can see through to other areas of the school," Devetski said. "I can actually see from my office down several hallways and down into a courtyard play area, so you’re constantly surrounded by children and it gives you that renewed sense of purpose, I think, of why you’re here and why we’re all here."