A boardwalk cuts through a wetland area on the campus of North Creek High School. The building is designed to allow maximum natural light, both cutting down on utilities cost and allowing students and staff a glimpse of the outdoors. JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD/Bothell-Kenmore Reporter

North Creek High vision bears strong similarities to the Finnish system

Bothell’s North Creek High School is expected to turn traditional high school on its head when the state-of-the-art facility opens in September.

The shining glass windows, massive LED screens, reclaimed wood in the school’s interior and landscaped wetlands aside, it’s the educational philosophy that makes North Creek stand out — at least that’s the hope.

The passageways are strikingly wide inside North Creek, and the classrooms seem to meld with the hallway to form an open, well-lit space dotted with benches, tables and the occasional grouping of desks. There are no lockers in the building, other than in the athletic facilities, meaning there’s a certain flow to the layout unlike most public school buildings.

The classrooms, effectively, don’t have doors, though teachers can close off classrooms with clear panels if privacy is needed and an additional opaque covering may be lowered in case of a lockdown.

The building is wired such that nearly every student can be hooked up to WiFi at once, and every class space has large exterior windows to bring in maximum natural light.

For North American schools, the idea is revolutionary. The layout and philosophy haven’t been tried on such a large scale anywhere in the country, but there’s a connection on the other side of the globe. The design is Finnish, very Finnish, and the idea behind the teaching philosophy comes from Finland as well.

North Creek Assistant Principal Joseph Robertson traveled to Finland last fall, specifically to see how the Finns built one of the best education systems in the world without classroom doors.

Finland went through sweeping education reform in the 1970s in which the country put an emphasis on education as a way to revive the economy. Decades later, Finland is consistently ranked among the world leaders in education.

Robertson toured four Finnish schools, an elementary, middle school, high school and a university. All four had glass walls and big passageways — exactly like the school he’d be partially tasked with running.

The secret? It’s not about minimizing distractions.

“We were talking with a teacher, and asked if students were distracted by people in the hallway with glass walls,” Robertson said. “The teacher said, ‘Yes, if what’s going on in the classroom is not engaging, students will be looking out the walls, out the windows and staring at their phones.”

Lecture-based learning is a rarity in Finland, Robertson said, and North Creek’s design doesn’t lend itself to what has become an outdated form of teaching.

“There is not anything special about Finnish kids,” Robertson said. “If the lesson is not engaging, they’ll be doing things kids around the world would be doing. That was the biggest takeaway — how important it is to make lessons engaging.”

The Finnish schools also put into practice the idea of extending the learning space and utilizing more of the building than just the classroom. This allows students to more easily work in groups, allows some interdisciplinary mingling — such as having crossover between a math class and a physics class — and allows the teachers to see all the action without stepping between the hallway and a closed classroom.

But along with a new philosophy and a design ahead of its time in North American education come challenges North Creek isn’t well-equipped to tackle. In Finland, Robertson said, the students and teachers take off their heavy coats and shoes when they arrive and spend the day in their socks.

Finnish classes also have a much lower teacher-to-student ratio, and Finland has the federal funds for higher teacher salaries and greater autonomy with the curriculum than in the United States. Finnish students also have less high-stakes testing, like the SAT and ACT and major exams, and every student gets a free lunch.

Despite the radical shift in philosophy, though, Robertson said North Creek hasn’t had trouble finding teachers willing to transfer from other Northshore schools.

“We got more teachers who wanted to transfer than we had openings,” Robertson said.

The school will need to hire additional teachers for the 2018-19 school year, as North Creek will only have freshmen, sophomores and juniors for 2017-18.

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