New Learning Commons Supports Study, Collaboration

Junior Ruby Baker, left, and sophomore Genevieve LaBelle chat over lunch in the renovated learning commons

The first time freshman Luca Massara visited the high school learning commons looking for a quiet place to study, he went straight for one of a pair of restaurant-style booths, stretched out on the left bench, rested his laptop on his chest and got to work on his Latin.

Around the corner, three other students closed themselves into one of six small study rooms with a “whoosh” of a sliding glass door so they could talk about a project without bothering others. Near a new bank of windows, junior Nate Spitzley hunkered down in what learning commons coordinator Cathy Szivan calls “the Jetson seats,” S-shaped tandem chair and desk units separated by a screen.

Junior Nate Spitzley in what learning commons coordinator Cathy Szivan calls a “Jetson seat”
Junior Nate Spitzley in what learning commons coordinator Cathy Szivan calls a “Jetson seat”

The high school’s renovated learning commons is nearing completion, as is the renovated middle school learning commons.

A bond issue passed in 2014 funded renovation of the spaces into learning hubs outfitted for the latest technology, with flexible space to allow students to work in groups interactively and from their own devices. Breton Downs, Wealthy and Lakeside elementaries each were upgraded last school year.

High School Principal Jenny Fee said district leaders visited similar spaces at Grand Rapids Christian High Schools and Grand Valley State University for inspiration. Renovated spaces include the area where books are loaned and studying takes place, as well as the creation of cafe seating near the main office and down the hallway to the lunch area.

The library space had undergone small tweaks over the years, but was still much as the school had been built in 1963, said Szivan, who has worked at the school 18 years.

Freshman Luca Massara finds a comfy spot to study Latin
Freshman Luca Massara finds a comfy spot to study Latin

“This really opens the dynamic of who comes in and how they work together or alone,” she said.

At the middle school, the updated learning commons focuses on making it easy for students to work together, Principal Anthony Morey said: “I think collaboration is key to all our environments. The design needs to work ergonomically for the users and for the situation.”

Components include movable furniture; chairs with built-in, fold-down desks; soft, tiered stadium-style seating blocks; and plentiful outlets to power devices.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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