• A vibrant orange front entry canopy invites students to engage in the process of discovery. - photo by Slyworks Photography

Two East Austin schools merge to form Norman-Sims Elementary, a new STEAM learning environment focused on discovery and community.

Client Austin Independent School District
Architect Kirksey Architecture
Contractor Joeris
Civil Engineer GarzaEMC
MEP Engineer JonesDBR
Food Service Foodservice Design Professionals
Acoustics Jaffe Holden
Landscape Architect Coleman & Associates
Structural Engineer Martinez Moore
Technology/AV/Security Datacom Design Group
Programming Murrell Office for Development and Architecture

At the turn of the 20th century in Chicago, the American philosopher and educator John Dewey posited in “The School and Society” (1899) and “The Child and the Curriculum” (1902) two revolutionary concepts: first, that the most effective education takes place through a “discovery process” of learning by doing, followed by reflection and analysis; and second, that schools should function as a social center for the community. A thousand miles away in Texas, Dewey’s contemporaries Granville Webster Norman and Mary Jane Sims were making their own significant contributions to the field as educators in Austin-area schools.

Still highly relevant over a century later, those ideas of discovery and community are being implemented at Norman-Sims Elementary School, where the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) educational approach is reflected in a dramatic architectural intervention that includes the addition of a Discovery Pavilion, where families are encouraged to gather in welcoming community spaces. 

After a $1 billion bond package was approved by voters in 2017, the Austin Independent School District embarked on the modernization of over a dozen existing schools throughout the district with the goal of creating 21st-century learning environments. The former Norman Elementary School was originally built in 1969 to serve students in the outer edge of the Springdale neighborhood in East Austin. Located only a mile to the west, Sims Elementary was consolidated with Norman due to declining enrollment at both schools. Following a comprehensive renovation, the renamed Norman-Sims Elementary School opened to students in January 2021. 

The architects attribute the success of the project to the contributions of a visionary principal who acted as a catalyst to bring together a diverse group of parents, teachers, and community members during an intensive engagement process. This coalition desired to create a school that was sensitive to the needs of the students in this vulnerable community — spaces that felt safe and nurturing, familiar yet innovative, all while maintaining a strong indoor-outdoor connection. 

Nicola Springer, AIA, vice president and PK-12 team leader at Kirksey Architecture, says, “It was important to communicate through the architecture that something exciting is happening here, and that the STEAM-focused spaces be front-door spaces where the whole family is welcome.” 

The design centers the primary community and activity spaces and brings them together to inject activity at the heart of the school. The original, single-story central portion of the U-shaped building was demolished and replaced by a two-story addition called the Discovery Pavilion, which ties the building together and provides a new, eye-catching street presence to showcase the hands-on style of learning taking place inside. The nearly 74,000-sf modernized school includes 20,000 sf of new construction. The two remaining wings of the building, containing mostly classroom spaces, were fully renovated with new finishes, interior and exterior glazing, and technology. 

When students arrive at the school, a vibrant orange front entry canopy reaches out, inviting them to engage in the process of discovery. The volumes for the art studio, maker spaces, and dedicated community room push out through the main plane of the west facade, like pistons in an engine, providing creative energy to the school. Playful orange bands accent the exterior of the addition and continue inside to form the colorful roof over the gymnasium and library, which complete the eastern half of the Discovery Pavilion. 

The ribbon of the entry canopy continues inside, leading directly to the open library, whose wide reading steps spill out and around the central Discovery Stair, which leads up to the upper grade level classrooms on the second floor. The front porch-like steps near the main entry provide an inviting space for small groups of students to discover new ideas and the joy of reading. 

The exterior massing of the library and the placement of windows exclude direct morning sunlight while allowing the space to be both naturally lit and free of shading devices. The daylight-filled, double-height space features a sculptural mobile that provides visual interest and fulfills an acoustic function. The mobile is reminiscent of a tree canopy, and the relationship of a child to a tree is an analogy for the growth process of the students as they transition from the lower grade level spaces in the school to the upper ones. Springer relates, “In early childhood, discovery is through play, and children spend time on the ground, looking up through the canopy, with dappled light filtering through onto their exploration below.” As they grow, they metaphorically climb those trees and journey upward to the Learning Neighborhood on the second floor of the building. From there, like birds in the nest, these older children look over and down through the foliage, reflecting on the activities happening in the spaces below. 

The collaborative and creative spaces in the Discovery Pavilion maintain a strong connection to the outdoors though large expanses of glazing and direct connections. On the east side of the school, the pavilion’s roof extends to form a large, double-height outdoor porch. A void carved out between the gymnasium and library, the porch is partially shaded by mid-morning and fully shaded by lunchtime, providing a communal gathering space for outdoor dining, play, or creative making activities. Looking out from the porch, a courtyard is formed by the flanking arms of the existing wings of the building. Within their embrace are sheltered outdoor learning spaces, including the preschool playground, an outdoor performance area, a large open grassy playing field, and a walking trail. The two-story mass of the building creates shade that protects these outdoor spaces and their occupants from the harsh afternoon Texas climate. 

Six months after the building opened, the architects engaged in their own discovery process via a post-occupancy analysis. They found through reflections from the students and teachers that the most favorable aspects of the new building were the connections to the exterior — the quality views and outdoor spaces. This analysis brings the discovery process full circle, providing a real-life example to the students of how applying the interconnected activities of ideating, creating, making, and evaluating — the same skills being learned at Norman-Sims — will serve this next generation as they tackle the challenges of the 21st century. 

Navvab Taylor, AIA, is an architect with McKinney York Architects in Austin.

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