In Oklahoma City, a School Designed for Homeless Children
Positive Tomorrows’s new building will meet the unique needs of homeless students. Main request by kids without homes for playdates: a place to sit with friends.
How do you incorporate the specific needs of homeless children into the design of a school? That’s the question the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit organization Positive Tomorrows asked itself when it was daydreaming about a new building that could meet the many needs of its students. Positive Tomorrows has been educating homeless kids and providing social services to families since 1989.
“There is no model for this type of school,” said Gary Armbruster, principal architect and partner at MA+ Architecture, which came on the scene in 2013 to help kickstart the design process for the new school.
Working with staff and students of Positive Tomorrows, his team came up with a design that would address the challenges homeless students face every day while finding ways to replicate the experiences of children who don’t suffer from homelessness. The new building, which will eventually serve children from infants to eighth-grade students, is set to open in September 2019. With a target of 210 students at full capacity, it will almost triple the capacity of the current facility, which can only serve about 74 children. Through its new structure, Positive Tomorrows hopes to provide a standard on how to build a school for homeless children.
“This is a school where we need to talk to the students,” said Armbruster. “Because in many cases, it’s their home away from home, a place where they feel secure and can have some consistency in their lives.” One of the most valuable, if simple, approaches that they took was to try to incorporate a homey feel. “Every room is themed with a home in mind,” said Armbruster.
The facility was designed in part by the kids, who participated in a “dream big” exercise, where they submitted drawings and other ideas of what they’d like to see in the new building. One student drew a floor plan that’s redolent of the current layout, with the lunchroom and the library in the center and everything else building out around it. The children wanted a treehouse, so the design includes a stylized indoor treehouse that serves as a collaboration space for students to socialize.
Clayton’s Clubhouse (named after the late son of a couple who volunteered with and donated to Positive Tomorrows) is another comfortable area, with a small lending library where kids can kick back, read a book, and even take one to keep. As homeless children generally don’t have a place to host playdates, many of these spaces meet students’ requests for “a place to sit with friends.”
The architects also incorporated a range of group-learning areas both inside and outside as spaces where kids can meet with other students or with their mentors to read, play games, or do schoolwork. Having spaces to meet with each other and reinforce social skills is important, because many of the children are behind developmentally and behaviorally when it relates to cooperation and group play. Key to making the children feel that they can own the spaces they’re in is having flexible, moveable, and durable furniture.
“Our kiddos have nothing that’s their own,” said Amy Brewer, Director of Education at Positive Tomorrows. “’If I want to do a Lego project, I can’t leave it out because where I stay tonight may not be where I stay tomorrow.’ Sometimes they’re just like turtles in their shells when they need just a moment,” Brewer continued. The new building will bring an enhanced cubby system, each one perfectly child-sized with a bench where the kids can relax surrounded by their things. “The cubbies are the one thing they have that’s theirs,” said Armbruster. “No one is gonna touch it; no one is gonna move it.”
The family room serves as both a common room and a cafeteria, and it’s the heart of the school and the main focal point upon entering the building. It extends out to the backyard, where the kids can play on the playground and learn in outdoor classrooms. Other areas, such as the living rooms and the front and back porches, are named to allow the students to understand what those words mean. “This sounds like such a simple concept that everyone should understand, but if you haven’t grown up with those ideals, then you just don’t understand them,” said Armbruster.
In 2017, the Oklahoma City Public School District had 5,031 homeless children enrolled. But Brewer believes the number of homeless children in Oklahoma City is closer to 10,000, due to lack of self-identification and “couch homelessness,” which is harder to measure. These are students who sleep in a different place nearly every night, be it a sofa, a garage, or on the floor of a relative or friend.
Positive Tomorrows was originally part of the city’s public school district, but the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act meant that public school systems could no longer segregate students based on their homeless status and the program morphed into a nonprofit, tuition-free private school. Positive Tomorrows believes that their children and families have particular needs and require a school that can provide that.
“Our families are in complete survivor mode,” said Brewer. “Schooling is an afterthought at best. For many of our kids, if they were not at Positive Tomorrows, they would not be at school. Positive Tomorrows is able to provide a family with an array of support services that a traditional public school cannot.”
Government support for the school is minimal; last fiscal year, Positive Tomorrows received a $61,339 reimbursement from the federal school lunch program, said Brewer, as well as $2,194.08 for Title II funding via the Oklahoma City Public School District that supports professional development for teachers. Fundraising for the new building began in 2017. The school received $5 million in New Market Tax Credits and was able to raise more than $10 million from the community in less than a year.
The largest donor gave $2 million with a vision that the school be built alongside ReMerge, a program that helps pregnant women and mothers facing incarceration, providing an alternative to incarceration in prison. Many of the children at Positive Tomorrows have mothers in the program, and ReMerge is also building a new facility. The two buildings will share a courtyard where the moms and kids can spend time together during the day.
Since caring for the families of the students is an essential mission of the school, the administration area has been designed at double the size that it might be in a traditional school, to accommodate the family support offices and cater to case management, housing placement, and other social services.
Homeless children often come into school feeling tired and restless, so there will be space to nap in the nurse’s office, and the early Head Start and Head Start rooms will be outfitted with cots and cribs. In addition, each classroom has a “touchdown space,” a connected but private room where one or a group of students can rest. The kitchen, where the kids are supplied with free school lunches, is off the family room alongside the food lab, a residential kitchen where parents and kids can learn to cook and have “homemade” meals as a family. It also has a built-in clothing closet with everything from coats to sneakers to toiletries; whatever a child might need to get through the school day and a laundry room.
During the “dream big” exercise, one of the students drew a button in his classroom that read, “Alarm for the police.” “So this child wanted to be able to call the police immediately, and that maybe says a lot about the life that he lives every day,” said Armbruster.
It wasn’t only the students: Safety and security was at the top of staff’s list of needs, as well. “One of the shelters we serve is a domestic violence shelter, so we have kids actively hiding from abusers,” said Brewer. The layout of the building reinforces safety: Its facade is made of glass, which both lets in abundant natural light and gives those in the administration offices a full view of anyone approaching. There is one point of entry for the entire building, and everyone has to enter through a two-step secure entry vestibule before checking in, signing in, and getting a badge.
“This is a place where they know they are safe,” Armbruster said about the design. “A place where they will learn and not be judged for how they look, what they wear, where they live or who they are. Here, they are all kids.”