When we sold our existing high school building about two years ago, we didn’t think it would be too difficult to find a replacement. We knew we wanted our alternative high school—where about 97 percent of the student body is categorized as “at risk” by the state of Colorado—to be close to town and easily accessible to students.

What we didn’t know is just how perfect an existing office building would be for our learning model and instructional approach. We follow the broader Big Picture Learning model, which is centered on individual student growth through community-based internships and student-centered curriculum.

A public, four-year Colorado Department of Education-accredited institution, Durango Big Picture High School serves about 100 students and boasts a student-teacher ratio of no more than 19 students to one advisor.

Dreaming Big

After putting some thought into it, we felt that office space would work well with our learning model. These smaller, cool workspaces are actually really supportive of a more independent and personalized learning approach. We were able to dream big on this one and it was a really fun experience. Here are six steps we took to ensure a smooth transition for students, staff, and families:

1) Know your mission and prioritize it. Our advisory structure is the heart and soul of what we do, and kids come into their advisory ideally as a freshman. Obviously, we still get a number of transfer students, but when students start at Big Picture, they get placed in an advisory. It's very much a family-type setting and focuses on successfully planning for and launching kids into their future with a lot of experience and knowledge behind them by the time they graduate.

2) Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. There was some anxiety in thinking about transitioning to something so different. Walking in here now, the space feels so much bigger and usable than we ever anticipated.

3) Get your superintendent and other leaders onboard early. This was an unusual project, so we wanted to make sure our superintendent supported the idea. I’m extremely grateful to Dr. Karen Cheser and her team for the support and encouragement along the way. Having a strong administrative team on our side was critical.

4) Take your time. Don’t just grab for the first thing that comes along. Even if you’re up against a deadline (like we were), it pays to explore your options before making that final decision. We found available office space that included a learning space; a first-floor area for counseling services, studios, and administrative offices; and a large upstairs space for a multipurpose room and small/medium-sized breakout spaces.

5) Find a partner that supports your vision and runs with it. MiEN worked with us and helped us capitalize on every space in the new building. It also took our school’s feedback and ideas and just ran with them. They made it far easier than I ever anticipated it would be, mainly because they came in and took some information and transformed it into a beautiful setting.

6) Create an engaging, comfortable learning space. We picked furniture fabrics that aligned with the school’s colors and took other steps to ensure a cohesive, comfortable environment for students and staff. All of the furniture is modular and flexible. We can turn any space into what we need it to be in 15 seconds flat. My favorite pieces of furniture are the moveable, comfortable chairs that spin and that feature the school’s colors: green, black, and white.

Our students do amazing things and now they have an even more supportive, engaging and inviting backdrop to work in. They leave us ready to launch right into the next step in their lives because we take the time to make sure they're ready to do that. As for our new building, we just can’t wait for the kids to get back to school this year and see how it all turned out.

About the author

Samantha Tower is the principal of Big Picture High School in Durango, CO.