Expect the Unexpected, a Reflection on the 2017 A4LE Conference in Atlanta

by Mandy Redfield, PE, LEED-AP BD+C, Assistant Practice Lead, Denver Office

I went to my first A4LE International Conference in Atlanta, GA with some expectations; to learn and meet new people. For the most part, however, I expected the experience would be similar to what we talk about in our typical school design process. Although these expectations were somewhat legitimate, I discovered something very different than just a focus on furniture, movable partition walls and garage doors. Some themes were uplifting, and others that were very revealing, and frankly hard to stomach.

Although A4LE is all about learning spaces, there were more discussions about the learning process than the space.

It wasn’t the typical “all students learn differently and need flexibility” discussions that stood out to me, (although is certainly true and needs careful consideration when designing spaces). For me, the equity and complexity discussions made the most impact.


The most impactful, and resonating presentation I attended was a session about Positive Tomorrows; a free, private school opened to homeless children in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This session was presented by the school’s Principal, Amy Brewer, who explained how Positive Tomorrow offers a safe learning environment for children; serves three hot meals per day; and provides transportation to and from school for every student.  This being a job in itself because these students don’t have a consistent home to go to every day. The school has specialized staff that re-routes their drivers each day depending on the students’ locations.

Principal Brewer shared the statistic of 1 in every 10 students in the Oklahoma City Public School District is homeless, using the term “homeless” broadly; and 1 out of every 21 students in the state of Oklahoma is homeless. “This may sound alarming and it should,” Principal Brewer informed the crowd. “Oklahoma City is not unique, however, – this is happening all over our country. The largest homeless population in the United States is ‘families with small children.’ None of us are impervious to homelessness; it can happen to anyone at any time.”

To me, these statistics were gut-wrenching.

Change is difficult for all people, but especially for people who have been subjected to a high volume of trauma. It was also interesting to hear how many of the students are very apprehensive about their new space. The school is very cognizant of this and is working with the students to make a smooth transition. I was inspired to learned what the future brings for Positive Tomorrows.

Positive Tomorrows has received enough private funding to create a new school building dedicated to their students. Ultimately, the new school’s design will focus around spaces in the home to give the students a sense of what a home looks like: a family room, back yard and an open kitchen where students can openly watch Miss Pam cook them meals.


I was thrilled that a keynote speaker was third grade teacher Kyle Schwartz, from Doull Elementary School in Denver, where we also have an office. Mrs. Schwartz discussed her book ‘I Wish My Teacher Knew’ which revolved around learning styles and connection to the learning space. The reoccurring themes Ms. Schwartz discussed were connection, passion, complexity and opportunity. She talked about the intense need for connection in schools, and how the relationships formed affect students and teachers for the rest of their lives.

However, the most impactful part of Ms. Schwartz’s presentation was when she explained how,

Space is the physical manifestation of relationships and connection.”

showing how important the spaces that we design are to not only the learning process, but also to the growth of a child into an adult.

Ms. Schwartz spoke about how complex the lives of students and teachers are, with examples of students who wrote things like “I wish my teacher knew that my family and I live in a shelter” and “I wish my teacher knew that I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.”

She described the homeless students who she has taught, and how important “Trauma Informed Instruction” is.

She gave another example of a lesson she teaches at the beginning of each school year: she takes the students on a “roller coaster ride.” During the ride, Ms. Schwartz tells them there was an accident and they are all “hurt.” She has the students come up one by one and asks them what hurts, because she can fix it. The first student says, “I hurt my hand.” So she puts a band aid on their hand. The next student says, “I hurt my leg.” So she puts a band aid on their hand. The next student says, “I hurt my head.” So she puts a band aid on their hand. When someone notices and says, “Hey, I said I hurt my head not my hand,” Ms. Schwartz asks them “Should I be giving everyone the same thing, or do we have different needs?”

This sparks discussion about equity and why each student is treated uniquely – not everyone gets the same treatment because they don’t need the same things.


Finally, I heard from Erin Jones and a panel on equity. Her life story is incredible (look her up! LinkedIn YouTube), and she found her purpose in teaching and promoting equality for all students. This led to a remarkable panel discussion from people all around the world and how their school districts define and work towards equity.


How can I, a consulting engineer, use this information to transform my thinking when managing or designing a project? First of all, it all ties to M.E. GROUP’s “why” and purpose – Improving Life through a Better Built Environment. We can impact learning as engineers in very small and very large ways. One was is to carefully design our systems to avoid trauma-induced reactions by decreasing noise and sudden changes (e.g. a large fan coming on abruptly). Another way would be to implement more passive HVAC strategies in learning spaces (radiant systems or displacement ventilation). Yet another way would be to promote the use of natural daylight and use well-thought lighting temperatures to reduce stress and distraction.

Most of all, we can LISTEN.

Mrs. Schwartz said “Leadership is Listening.” If we get the opportunity to listen to teachers, staff and students, we can learn so much that can be applied to our designs.

So what did I learn about learning? To keep listening, and never stop!

EDITOR’S NOTE: During the A4LE conference, Mandy Redfield, was named a Director-At-Large for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of A4LE! We’re very proud of her for the accomplishment.