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Design pros help educators, stand ready to do more

Rochester Business Journal
July 25, 2014

Improving the educational performance of Rochester’s schools has risen to top-of-mind consciousness throughout the region.

Our city schools, in particular, have been the subject of a community discussion. In the face of mounting concern, extraordinary commitments have been made to try to get things on the right track. Leading businesses and institutions have increasingly weighed in to make a difference. The University of Rochester has made the most recent and boldest move by undertaking a “recommissioning” of East High School. This extraordinary new initiative has underscored the level of concern and the kinds of actions that may be required.

A wide range of constituencies are pitching in, each in its own way, understanding intuitively what’s at stake. Rochester’s design community has been a part of this tide of concern, looking for new ways to contribute. Our region’s architects and engineers have long made education a top priority, acting as a resource for teaching professionals in the area. The American Institute of Architects’ Rochester chapter has been continually involved and supportive of creative approaches to education.

Working under UR President Joel Seligman’s leadership, the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education is at the center of the current initiative at East High. The Warner School has been a leader in modeling creative approaches to education. Recently, several of my colleagues and I were able to participate in one of these exciting endeavors.

Soon after my last article on Rochester bridges was published in the Rochester Business Journal, I was contacted by faculty members at the Warner School. Jo Ann Morreale is science educator in residence at the graduate school and is responsible for student teacher placements at area schools. Working closely with April Luemann, who heads the initiative, she coordinated a unique series of activities as a part of the school’s Get Real Science program.

The program focuses on experiential learning, using real-world experiences to vastly improve student engagement with the learning process. One of their many ideas was to see if the subject of bridges along the Genesee River might inspire their graduate students, who had been given the task of creating a compelling curriculum that could be used in city schools in the fall.

Accordingly, on a recent afternoon, more than 20 graduate students met at Bergmann Associates’ office space on the 19th floor of the First Federal Building. From that vantage point we were able to see 15 of the 22 bridges crossing the Genesee River. We discussed their purpose, structural design, aesthetics, history and economic challenges.

Using these discussions as a starting point, the graduate students began crafting proposed curricula. The next step involved presenting these as proposals in a forum. Called Collaborative Conversations, the event brought together widely diverse groups with a common commitment to improving the effectiveness of student engagement with learning. Several teams from the Get Real Science project participated along with teams from Rochester Institute of Technology, the Harley School and several grassroots community groups. The idea was to invite a truly diverse audience to comment on their ideas.

Each curriculum proposal was presented by its project team in a roundtable format with a meeting facilitator and a timekeeper. The presenters then listened to the wide-ranging, lively roundtable discussion rather than receiving direct responses.

The outcomes from this event were extraordinarily successful, honing the approach of the graduate students while raising the awareness of participants. Several professionals from my firm participated and were inspired by the energy, commitment and creativity they saw. It allowed us to glimpse the possibilities of such initiatives. The Warner School is onto something.

One of the key aspects that struck me was the power of experiential learning and its potential to improve student outcomes. This educational approach focuses on the learning process for students as individuals, each with his or her own perspective and set of strengths. Students make discoveries and experiment with knowledge firsthand instead of hearing or reading about others’ experiences.

While the situation at East High School represents a current concern, there are clear signs that creatively focused educational approaches are already working. Schools like the Rochester Central School District’s World of Inquiry School 58 and the Genessee Community Charter School are examples of proven success. Each uses expeditionary learning as a foundational approach.

The Genesee Community Charter School is on the campus of the Rochester Museum & Science Center. It enrolls roughly 215 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and is among the highest-performing schools in the nation. As an expeditionary learning school, students are immersed in three interdisciplinary learning expeditions each year focused on local history and the natural world. Classes frequently venture into the community for rigorous field studies integrated into their ongoing learning experiences. The school is publicly funded, and there is no tuition. Enrollment is open to all Rochester residents, and a lottery is held each year for incoming students.

World of Inquiry School 58 is on University Avenue near Main Street and is currently undergoing renovation and expansion as a part of the city’s school modernization program. It has been successful by every traditional measure, with some of the highest test scores in New York State.

Both these schools have demonstrated that teachers with good training, strong leadership and a clear mission can be successful in teaching the basics to their students in lower-income urban areas.

Get Real Science is but one example of the creativity and energy that is being applied to our educational deficit. There are numerous other programs working on this urgent situation. Next year Warner School’s Morreale expects Collaborative Conversations to become an even larger event. I know that my colleagues in the design professions stand ready to do our part.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at

7/25/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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