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Ramallah Friends School: The Wonders of Participatory Planning

By Joyce Ajlouny

It is true: our campuses are beautiful. They have been referred to as “an oasis of peace” and “a haven.” Though we see their beauty, we wonder, nonetheless, whether we are taking full advantage of these upgraded facilities, green spaces and ecological environments to maximize and invigorate the learning of our students. Are our teachers ready to move toward a model that does away with traditional classroom settings? Where should we build our new middle school building and what purposes should it serve?

While we knew the answers to many questions, we also knew that we needed more help figuring it all out. It seems we found the right people to assist us. Fielding Nair International, an architectural firm with the motto, “Instruction before construction,” and specializing in the building of schools was contracted to help us with master planning of both campuses and more specifically with the design of our new middle school building. Walther Hetzer, the lead educator, and Ritsaart (Rits) Marcelis, the lead architect, arrived on our school grounds in April for what they termed a discovery visit. In addition to touring the schools and grounds, Hetzer and Marcelis attended several stakeholder meetings involving the entire school community. Some visioning workshops were held with students, others with parents and teachers and others with administrators and trustees. For three days our entire school community was fully engrossed in answering questions such as, “What is your preferred method of learning, how can you better take advantage of your campuses, and what does your ideal school look like?” Lower elementary students were asked to illustrate their answers to the last question.

The ultimate result was both surprising and very telling. Key issues that emerged included the need to focus more on technology in education and to make greater use of outdoor learning environments, where many students requested there be a swimming pool. On the new building design the message was loud and clear: it needs to diverge from the traditional classroom set-up and be as “green” as can possibly be. But the true blessing went beyond all of that; it was witnessing the entire school community taking ownership and actively participating in the future planning of their school.