TLC: Shaping Schools, Shaping Lives: Transformation Through Environment


Students are at a table loaded with electronics working on a science project.
Image via The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth.

The Power of Physical Environments.

“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us,” asserted Sir Winston Churchill.

Andrew L Ross, Gary Grenier, and Frank Kros, transformational education experts, echo this sentiment in their book, Creating The Upside Down Organization: Transforming Staff to Save Troubled Children.

They underline the distinct messages that all environments convey. For instance, a prison conveys the loss of freedom and independence, reflecting the facility’s purpose.

However, they emphasize a crucial contrast. Schools and child-caring organizations should recreate their physical environments to foster transformation, promoting a message of “connectedness” for the future.

The Brewer Method: Transforming Struggling Schools

Hamish Brewer, a self-described “educational disruptor” and principal, embodies this concept. He left a nationally distinguished Title 1 School to revive “one of the toughest middle schools in the state of Virginia”. His unique approach underscores the transformative power of the environment in shaping the student experience. His driving message? Be Relentless.

A Case for Radically Engaging Learning Environments

Brewer believes that the traditional square box model of schools fails to resonate with today’s students. His mission is to transform struggling schools, and a primary strategy is shaping schools, overhauling their physical appearance. He explains:

“We’ve got to move away from this archaic educational process where we build these schools in square boxes and kids fill these square boxes. The world isn’t a square box [anymore.] Times changed. Kids have changed, and we’ve got to move with that.”

His goal? Create an immersive student experience that communicates three key messages as soon as students walk through the doors:

  • They are loved
  • They can learn
  • Their daily actions matter

Emphasizing Stability in Chaotic Lives

Brewer understands the challenges many students face, coming from chaotic backgrounds. He emphasizes stability in the school environment, becoming a constant figure in the lives of students who often experience transiency.

Upon his arrival at Fred Lynn Middle School, Brewer embarked on an extensive transformation of the physical environment.

He created an engaging, authentic, and relevant learning space. This set the stage for the school’s staff and faculty to model exactly what they expect. The environment and the school’s leadership could then speak as one voice to positively shape the student experience. 

During the summer break, Brewer rallied volunteers to overhaul the school building. They aimed for a complete aesthetic redesign that would inspire students, teachers, and parents to relentlessly pursue excellence.

Brewer prioritized connecting with the broader community. Before the new school year, he introduced families to the revamped school. This fresh environment set new expectations, inviting families to join the pursuit of excellence.

His engagement extended beyond physical changes, as he utilized a rolling desktop as his mobile office. His visible presence and frequent affirmations constantly encouraged the school community. One teacher reported, “He’s doing it again. It’s starting to change here, already.”

The Impact: Transformation at Fred Lynn Middle School and Beyond

The transformation at Fred Lynn Middle School was profound. Brewer has since become a specialist in turning around and improving schools, particularly those serving the most at-risk students in the United States.

The Game-Changer: Revamping Physical Surroundings

While a single strategy may not address all challenges, revamping a school’s physical surroundings can create a vibrant environment that supports and amplifies other intentional efforts. It provides a sense of stability and care, inspiring potential and possibility, and offering a clean slate for students and teachers.

The End Result: Shaping Lives Through Shaping Schools

Comprehensive efforts like those of Brewer contribute significantly to school improvement. By creating an environment that sends a consistent message of care and the pursuit of excellence, schools can provide students with a supportive atmosphere conducive to learning and personal growth. This transformed environment paves the way for potential growth that might be stifled in less inspiring settings.

Ultimately, this process has the potential to revolutionize academic performance and overall well-being, solidifying the assertion that while we shape our buildings, they indeed shape us.

Such transformative strategies underscore the potential of comprehensive efforts in addressing the complex issues faced by struggling schools, driving home the impact of environmental transformation on not just the academic but also the personal lives of students.

While a revamp of the physical surroundings may not be the singular solution to all the problems schools face, it has the potential to be a significant catalyst for change in struggling schools—making the physical environment, indeed, a game-changer.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting. For more information, go to:

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.

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