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FAQs – Hubs and Code Compliance

Hubs – What are they?

Whether we are in big public forums, people’s living rooms, scanning Lincoln Talk, or standing in line at Donelan’s, one of the recurring conversations is about “hubs” – What are they? How do they change education? Are they a fad? Are they like my 1970’s open classroom? Is the hub model innovative enough?

The SBC revisited this topic at its May 30th meeting, when Philip J. Poinelli, FAIA, ALEP, LEED AP, MCPPO, Principal and Learning Environment Planner for SMMA, focused on these very questions.

What are hubs and how do they change education? As you can see in the image below, these spaces come with a variety of names (breakout spaces, learning commons, etc.). Generally, they are flexible, multi-use spaces that are adjacent to, and shared by multiple classrooms/learning studios. The idea is to transform the physical environment from a factory model (Classes of 18 – 24 students in a series of same-sized boxes along a corridor) to a neighborhood model (multi-sized spaces around a common area shared by a cohort of students and several teachers). This reflects and supports the fundamental shift in education that is already happening. The pace of change and access to information is such that it is difficult to predict the content students will be learning in 50 years, but we do know that they need to be able to think critically and imaginatively, access and evaluate information, and work collaboratively and across disciplines. Our faculty is already engaged in this kind of education.  As School Committee Chair, Tim Christenfeld, noted during the May 30thSBC meeting, “There is an evolution in teaching, but there’s a disconnect between the teaching and the building.”  Buildings have the power to facilitate and accelerate innovation.

Click on the image to see the slides from the May 30th presentation to the SBC

Are hubs a fad? In his presentation, Mr. Poinelli gave several example of school systems that were pioneers in transformational school design, and that seeing their first buildings in action, have committed themselves to this model.

  • The High Tech High School in San Diego was founded in 2000 with one school. It was built around the concept of “project-based learning” – an interdisciplinary, problem-solving approach to education. The model has grown into a network of schools in California including four elementary schools, four middle schools and six high schools.
  • Department of Defense Educational Activity (DoDEA): DoDEA operates 194 schools serving over 86,000 students. Statistically, DoDEA is the 34th largest school district in the nation though its schools are spread out across the US and the world. In 2011, DoDEA developed its framework for school design based on 21st century education principles.  This is very relevant for Lincoln, as the framework was used to design both the Hanscom Middle School (completed in 2016) and the Hanscom Primary School (under construction). Our faculty is already teaching in this kind of facility.
  • Mr. Poinelli noted that a number of districts have multiple schools designed around a hub approach, including Saskatchewan, Canada and Snohomish, WA
  • The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) is now accommodating hub-based designs into the projects they approve. The SBC toured one of these schools, the Gates Middle School, in Scituate. Here is a recent WGBH news item about project based learning at Gates.

    technology bar in a Gates MS hub space

Are they like my 1970’s open classroom? No. Mr. Poinelli said that not all open plan schools had hubs and not all were unsuccessful, but those that failed likely had some of these characteristics:

  • Lack of acoustical isolation – classrooms that were open to each other or separated by poor quality operable partitions. Operable partition technology has improved significantly as has acoustical engineering.
  • HVAC systems within the teaching spaces, which often made distracting noise. Today we can create teaching environments that are very quiet, improving speech intelligibility for the benefit of all students.
  • Lack of visual isolation – the teaching spaces opened to each other with little option to close them off.
  • History tells us that in many communities with open plan schools, there was little teacher professional development conducted in how best to use these new schools. By contrast, the Lincoln Public Schools administration and Hanscom Middle School faculty spent two years planning how to optimize their new environment while they waited for the building to be constructed. The Primary School faculty is now doing the same.
  • Over the past 30 years there has been significant brain research that informs us how we learn and how many of us learn differently from each other. This has had a real impact on how we design learning environments today. Mr. Poinelli commented that “if the educators need to grow into the building, the architects have done their job.”
neighborhood concept

Is the hub model innovative enough? When a group of resident educators presented to the SBC, the question arose whether the hub model was sufficiently forward-thinking. At the current concept-level phase, the project concepts L3 and C show (for grades 3 – 8) grade-level hubs surrounded by similarly sized classrooms.  If one of these concepts is chosen on June 9th, the interior configuration of those grade-level clusters will be developed and refined, and it is possible that they could look more like the neighborhood model in this illustration.  That design work will happen in conjunction with our educators. L3 and C provide enough square footage and heavy renovation/new construction to make those decisions possible.  There is, inherently, more flexibility with the new construction of classroom wings than with the renovation of a cinderblock building.

Another FAQ the SBC often hears is “What is the threshold for code compliance?” After the 1994 school project linked the Smith and Brooks schools, the Lincoln School became a single building. Here is a high-level summary of the structural, accessibility and life-safety codes that will be addressed by all of the concepts under consideration.


  • Regarding hubs, can someone please explain in more detail how they would be used in grades 6, 7, and 8. As I understand it, our current practice is there are separate classrooms for science, math, english, and social studies/history per grade. There is a separate “specialist” teacher for each of those subjects per grade. How does the hub plan provide for use for differentiated learning/instruction in say, science, when there is one teacher for that subject for that grade? Also, can you comment on whether the hub space would be occupied most of the time, or would there be periods of time each day when the hub space is not used and the students are in one of the four classrooms?

    • From Becky McFall, Superintendent: “At Hanscom Middle School, hubs are used throughout the day for different purposes. They are used independently by small groups of students and for small group instruction with specialist teachers such as special educators, math and literacy specialists and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. They are also used by whole classes and multiple classes at a time when instruction is integrated in an interdisciplinary model.

      When our teachers design interdisciplinary units, instruction occurs in individual classrooms and in the hubs. For example, students are learning separate but related content in their core classes of English, math, social studies, and science. They then combine in different ways in the hub for group work. For example, some students might be writing a report that incorporates their learning from each subject, or building a model that represents their thinking or solves a problem that was posed. Others migh come together in the hub for a co-taught lesson and support from multiple faculty members.

      There are many times when students are using classrooms and hubs at the same time depending on the assignment at hand, and with whom they need to work.

      Specialists such as art, music, wellness/physical education, technology, and library teachers also work in an interdisciplinary way and utilize the hubs with their students. These classes teach may teach an entire grade level at the same time of day in order to provide time for the rest of the grade level team (math, science, English, Social Studies, World Languages) to come together and plan their interdisciplinary units. For example, a grade level is studying Colonial Massachusetts. The English, Social Studies, science, and math teachers collaborate to develop and include interdisciplinary lessons throughout the unit. At the same time in art, music, physical education, the students are learning about the art, music, and physical activities from the Colonial period. At the end of the unit, all the teachers and students participate in a culminating event for families which allows the students to exhibit not only their knowledge of specific content, but also their written, visual and verbal communication skills.

      The hubs and small breakout rooms also get used for differentiation. Differentiation tends to be more prevalent in math and English but can happen in any subject. Students get assigned work depending on their needs, and as a result may utilize different spaces offering varying levels of adult support. In a neighborhood model, some groups could work independently and some with a teacher in a classroom while a larger group is in the hub with two teachers, and another group is in a small breakout room a teacher or specialist. For example, in science a teacher may teach a lesson and set students up to carry out a laboratory activity. A special educator or ESL teacher might take a small group to a breakout room or an area of the hub to do the activity and provide additional support while the science teacher works with a larger group in the classroom. Using the varied spaces available, there are many ways in which students may be grouped, re-grouped and supported throughout the course of the day.”

Thoughts? Comments? Questions?

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