Designing a School from Scratch

How educators and designers worked together to build Canyon View High School from the ground up

Architecture of school

Photo by Tom Reich

By Phillip Nowlin and Taryn Kinney

Take a moment to envision your high school experience, or the visuals of the quintessential American high school environment that you have seen on television or read about in countless books. What do you see?

Perhaps you see crowds of students packed into bleachers on a Friday evening, clad in their school’s colors and shouting their fight song or cheering on the football players, march-ing band, and cheerleaders. Or maybe you remember the lights dimming in the auditorium as the curtain rose to reveal the opening scene of the spring musical. On a less thrilling note, you may recall nodding off at your desk while trying to absorb the complex equations scrawled across the whiteboard ahead of your math test. All of these visuals contribute to our unique ideas of high school culture, but how do these environments and traditions come into being in the first place? Phillip Nowlin, the Principal of Canyon View High School in Waddell, Arizona, and Taryn Kinney, a Principal at global design firm DLR Group, share in this article some of the components that go into not only building a high school from the ground up, but also creating an environment that fosters educational, personal, social, and ultimately professional growth for the students that pass through its halls, catalyzing a positive transition into adult life.


Part 1: Meet the Authors

Phillip Nowlin, Principal of Canyon View High School, on Finding Innovation in Education

I went to high school in a traditional format, and I have taught in a traditional high school. The impetus behind designing Canyon View was the idea of transitioning from this more rigid educational mindset, and instead working together with designers, students, teachers, administrators, community members, and industry partners to build an innovative academic community. We began our journey by asking key questions: What does the 21st-century high school look like? What did you have in your high school that you liked? What didn’t you have in your high school or educational experience that you wish you would have had? We decided, in the design of Canyon View, to not allow past conventions to restrict us. There’s no ceiling, there are no barriers, just a dream of an improved high school experience, and a determination to figure out how to make that work. I had the unusual opportunity as a school principal to be able to be involved in the design of my school from the beginning. Through a partnership between DLR Group and Agua Fria Union High School District, we were able to tour and study other educational institutions, look at their choices in the design of their schools, and determine if these ideas should be incorporated into Canyon View. Our goal was not only to create a 21st-century school, but also to make the design flexible, so that in 50 to 60 years, it does not become out of date. The result was a school with spaces that can be reshaped to however teachers want to deliver instruction, or for students, how-ever they want to receive instruction. All of our furniture is on casters for easy movability, we have whiteboard-top tables where you can take markers and write whatever you want there, and we have movable walls that can adjust classroom sizes as needed. Our six different career pathways each have access to industry-level technology, including a film and TV studio with a green screen, a barn, and a greenhouse. Our walls feature vibrant colors, and we have windows every-where to let the natural light in. Capitalizing on our location outside of Phoenix, our cam-pus features ample open spaces for outdoor socialization and learning. It’s an amazing place to be a part of. I’m blessed to have this opportunity to be the principal of such an innovative school.

Taryn Kinney, Design Principal at DLR Group, on Design and Organizational Psychology

I began my career in architecture, and did that for almost 20 years before I went back to school to study organizational psychology (the study of human behavior in the workplace) at Columbia. This decision to study organizational psychology and work it into a career in design came from a lot of frustration. I got into design because of its potential impact on human behavior, and the ability of spatial design to improve the lives of people who interact with the space. However, in my professional experience, it didn’t always work out that way for a number of reasons. I specifically love working in education. There is potential to have fun with the design, to use color, to actually think about the users that are moving into the building, and to try to do what’s best for them. However, there are so many limits on educators, such as legislation, safety concerns, and budgetary requirements, that making positive change is hard. There are so many rules that, to be quite honest, aren’t always made in the best interest of the students and teachers.

In the past, I loved working with educators to learn how they really wanted to teach, what they believe is best for kids, and then design spaces to support that. However, the disappointment came after the space was initially occupied, when inhabitants of the space weren’t able to reach those goals that they had imagined. Teachers and administrators weren’t able to change their daily patterns and routines to really reach that future vision for learning that they had worked through in the design process. There was this misalignment between the design of the space and the learning schools wanted to see, which has other implications and negative outcomes. Getting the degree in organizational psychology was really an effort for me to marry these two things—the goals in the design process and the actual feasible outcomes—and try to get them to work together.

Cover of the Education Issue

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 019

About Canyon View High School

Canyon View High School opened in 2018 in Waddell, Arizona.
The 340,000 sq.ft school sits on 55 acres, and has a student population of 1,800. Canyon View’s mission is to prepare students
to be college and career ready through STEM-focused authentic academic opportunities, signature career pathways, and a diverse range of co-curricular programs. Learning experiences focus on a “project” or “problem” based, collaborative learning model with individualized instruction provided in small learning communities. The CVHS Career Pathway model provides rigorous courses in Agriculture, Coding and Computer Programming, Television and Film production, Graphic Design, Health Sciences, and Marketing. Canyon View offers tailored services to students with special needs and a variety of student programs including but not limited to 18 Freshman, Junior Varsity and Varsity sports, and co-curricular activities such as Student Government, National Honor Society, Black Student Union, and Unified Sports.


According to the American Psychological Association, “Industrial/ organizational psychology is the scientific study of human behavior in the workplace. It focuses on assessing individual, group and organizational dynamics and using that research to identify solutions to problems that improve the well-being and performance of an organization and its employees. I/O psychologists look at questions such as: How are decisions made? How effective is communication? How do team members interact and collaborate? Knowing the answers to these questions and many others helps business owners assess where to change systems and dynamics to make their company function better.”


Part 2: At the Forefront of Education Design

Taryn on the Evolving Design Process in Education

I would say that education design in the past was not necessarily that interesting. Tasks focused mainly on simple logistical issues like designing more classrooms, because more bodies needed to fit in the school. Simple mathematical calculations can be used to design a space that can just hold more people, and oftentimes we would only be allowed to speak to the director of facilities or the maintenance department that keeps up the building, not the people who the facility is really meant to serve. More and more, however, I have been able to work with the teachers, administrators, and even in some cases the students to really integrate the design of the space with their wants and needs.

Additionally, the design of education has changed dramatically in recent years as the technological revolution continues. There’s been a huge paradigm shift in how people access information. It used to be that the teacher was the keeper of the information and decided when and how knowledge was delivered. Now, students can access information in all sorts of ways. The questions we as designers and educators need to ask include: What do we really need to teach students? How do we need to teach? What are we preparing them for in terms of the skill sets they actually need to have when they leave school and go into the real world? There’s a whole new reevaluation of how people can learn best, and how the design of educational spaces can facilitate that.

Most traditional classrooms are based on a passive learning experience—teachers talk at the students, who receive the information and take notes. That type of learning is very well supported in a box-shaped classroom, where there is a front of the classroom where the teacher stands, and the students are in the other area; it’s not democratic. What I’ve been challenging in my design projects and what we see with Canyon View is a school design that is transcending this traditional model to foster a more collaborative experience both between students and with the teachers and their students.

It’s a pretty intense process to design a school collaboratively. It’s a lot of figuring out what the school’s values and priorities are and developing the systems and structures in a way so that when they hire their teachers, those teachers know what they’re expected to do every day. They know what teaching and learning is going to look like at the school. They know how they’re going to be supported. They know how they’re going to be measured. And, importantly, they also know how the system is going to be reviewed and updated, making them a part of that process as well.


Working With, not For, the Client

In designing Canyon View, we really had the somewhat unusual benefit of being able to collaborate directly with Phillip and his team in the design phase of his school. Not all principals get that, especially when there’s a new building to be built, because oftentimes, the principal of the new school has not even been hired yet. Key components of our design pro-cess together involved trust-building, and making sure the buy-in was there not only for Phillip, but also for the team that he was able to hire as we got closer to the school’s open date. As designers who deal in pushing boundaries, we often see that people resist change, not because of change itself, but because of the unknown. So to avoid the educators feeling like they are jumping into a foreign environment, we help them identify what they want their product to be. Any organization has a product, and for schools, it’s the learners. It’s the skill sets they graduate with or leave the campus with. So we started with the learner profile, which the education team developed, and then we helped them design a space that would allow them to achieve that product.

As designers who deal in pushing boundaries, we often see that people resist change, not because of change itself, but because of the unknown.

From there, we also helped them to develop an educator profile. We asked: If those are the skills you want to build, what does the educator have to do? What skills do they need to have to do that? Conclusions from this analysis helped Canyon View to hire its education team, and to define the expectations for how people are going to behave and what teaching and learning at the school would look like. It’s an intense process. For Phillip and his team, many of them had other jobs while they were doing this, and only a couple of them were full time, but they still put a lot of time and energy into this process, which certainly paid off in Canyon View’s end result.



Phillip on Jumping into the World of Design

During the creation of Canyon View, I got a crash course in construction, architecture, and design. It helped me grow as an educator. I found that it’s important to understand the language of these industries, in order to effectively articulate the needs of your school. I also found that in my work with DLR Group, my resolve to challenge conventions of traditional education to bring Canyon View to the cutting edge of innovation were not just acknowledged, but affirmed. The challenges arose when bringing some of these unconventional ideas to my edu-cation team; they were surprised by a lot of things that I had talked about implement-ing with Taryn and her team. For instance, at Canyon View we don’t have any bells to signify the end of classes, just one that starts the day and one at the end of the day. Every classroom doesn’t have four walls, and we decided to call them learning labs, not class-rooms. I spent the better part of my first year as principal convincing our leadership, educators, and parents that the choices we were making would be beneficial to the students, and I know that my collaboration with DLR Group from the get-go helped me to solidify my vision and more clearly articulate that to the rest of the Canyon View community. As a result, I was able to forge a sense of commitment to our mission with my team, so that every educator that works at Canyon View is 100% committed to our vision.


Preparing Students for the Professional World

Aside from designing the spaces of the school and structure of the day to more closely mimic collegiate or vocational environments, we also designed the technological components that the school offers to students to help prepare them for professional life. We use Google Workspace, so all of our students have Chromebooks, Gmail, and use Google Calendar to organize their events and assignments. We teach them how to use each component, and what we’ve noticed through providing these tools is that students take greater ownership of their academic, organizational, and interpersonal practices. They treat the building better and they treat each other better, because they feel like we’ve given them some trust. Obviously we have to have some parameters, but a significant difference that you see in other schools and not at Canyon View is the amount of distractions to learning through-out the day, in the form of bells, announcements, et cetera. If you come to our building and then you go to a traditional school, you’ll notice the distractions. We become so numb to it because it’s traditional learning and it’s how we’ve always done things, but we’re challenging that here.


Part 3: Equity and Education Design

Phillip on Equity at Canyon View

When we looked at the most important components for a school community, one of our major focuses was diversity on campus. The physical space in the school is of course important, but the mindset of the community is also a key factor that needs to be cultivated. Equitable learning opportunities can look a variety of ways. A lot of times people want to focus solely on race, and it’s not always just that. It’s ability; it’s accessibility, and so much more. First, we tried to physically create an environment that was welcoming to all, in which all students felt that they could collaborate, try, and experience differ-ent things. When all of the classrooms don’t have four walls or feature windowed walls, it literally makes things very transparent. When you’re very transparent, or you have to be very transparent, some of the things that happen behind closed doors can’t happen, or if they do, there’s a consequence to it. To give an example, for teachers, when they’re teach-ing in a room that is completely enclosed, and maybe no administrator or anybody visits on a semi frequent basis, how that teacher is talking to students, what they’re deliver-ing, or the opportunities that students have to participate is not consistently monitored. Our setup really causes the teachers and the students to be on display. They have to start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk, and that aligns with our DEI initiative here at Canyon View High School.

The E Words: Equity v. Equality

Additionally, at Canyon View we are striving to overcome this entrenched mindset in edu-cation that in order to create a fair environment, everyone must have access to the exact same tools. That’s equality. Oftentimes people talk about equality as if that’s the only aim in education, but the aim is equity as well. Equity involves students being given access to specified tools that enhance their learning experiences and allow them to perform with their peers, and these tools may look different for each student. We wanted to make sure that we were specific about promoting equity on our campus and determining how we could utilize the spaces to achieve this. Especially in the time of online learning, we have seen across the board that students don’t have the same access to resources or support systems. Some students have been completely alone during their school days, while others have both of their parents pushing them to complete assignments. Some of our students have had to start working during the pandemic because of financial issues in the home. So to combat these inequities both during COVID and in general, we have a grading system that doesn’t penalize students for not completing assignments at the exact time that the teacher wants it, and allows students to be retaught and to reassess with their teacher to make sure that the lesson is actually learned. All of us know that with many certifications that we get as adults, if we don’t get it the first time we get to test again— aspiring lawyers can retake their bar exam, you get to test for your teacher certification again, and you can do your driver’s test again, if you don’t pass the first time. Yet we turn to students and say that the ability to retest doesn’t exist in the real world. We give all that latitude to the adults in our lives, but then we tell our students that they don’t get the same. That’s not real life. As a principal, if I were to treat my teachers in the way in which students are traditionally evaluated, they’d be upset. This is because as working professionals, we would say that it is unfair to come into your work space and evaluate you on one day, and if you don’t do everything right in that one snapshot, your career will suffer significantly. We try to avoid that idea in our grading at Canyon View. If a student does poorly on a test, we look back at all the work that they’ve done before, and if their work doesn’t match their test performance, we work with that student to determine where the disconnect was. This helps our teachers to have conversations with the students, in order to help them find ways to support students in succeeding in future evaluations.



Taryn on Designing a Tailored Experience for Canyon View Students

A direct topic that we focused on during the design of Canyon View was the individual experience of a student, how that can vary, and how the design of the school can cater to those differences. From the very beginning, there was a lot of study on the individual student’s experience and what that might look like in the years to come. We also strove to speculate and facilitate how relationships would be built both within groups of students, and across different groups of students and educators. There was some really intentional design around how to bring people together and create those spaces for people to commune and build those relationships. We also worked to develop the cultural expectations and practices of the school, along with the academic expectations and practices. There were a lot of new ideas introduced at Canyon View that teachers hadn’t done before, and they really needed some guidance on how to implement those changes from their previous academic environments. One of the unique features about Canyon View that differs from convention is that teachers do not have their own set classrooms. This is because if teachers have their own classroom, and they can close the door, it’s really easy for them not to collaborate and just sit in that room and do their own thing. Making the class spaces communal is an effort to bridge that gap and allow more communication between teachers and students, and teachers with their fellow educators. Additionally, there are different tools available in different spaces, including furniture and technology, so depending on how they’re delivering their lessons, teachers can move their class based on that. This design feature really helps Canyon View to stay student-centered. And that was something that we had to really specifically talk about with Phillip and his leadership team. We discussed what they wanted their school to look like, and then wrote it down and communicated to the teachers the details they would need to know to make that vision a reality. In general, the teachers have been very receptive to our detailed approach, including academic principles that feature project-based learning, which allowed educators to start with one or two projects a semester in the first year, in order to not take on everything all at once, but to work into the ultimate goal of the Canyon View community with the teachers and students over time.

You can read more about Taryn’s work on equity in education design here:


Part 4: Engaging the Community

Phillip on Bringing the Community into the Canyon View Space

One of our primary community spaces at Canyon View is our White Box and theater space. We call it a “white box” as opposed to the traditional black box theater space because it has tons of windows, bright lights, it’s painted white on the ceiling to create a more open feeling, and it has a big hangar door on one wall that opens up to create a semi-out-door space. The space is really reflective of our campus mantra of having very few closed-off spaces. It also has its own restrooms and concession area, so our community partners can use the space for various activities, while allowing us to section them off from the rest of the school during the day, but still enabling our students to engage with these community activities when appropriate. We have a church utilizing the space currently, and we’ve also used it for our STEM Con, which is our full district STEM event. I sometimes forget until I go to another cam-pus or I talk to other educators, that they don’t have this type of multi-use space that you can do anything and everything with. This space really allows us to bring students together like never before. We had a gallery walk where we took all three of our geometry classes into the space to collaborate and show off their work at the same time. We’re talking about 90 to 100 students doing a project together, utilizing the White Box as their classroom. You can’t necessarily do that in a normal school, because you simply don’t have the space. For our school dances, we open up the hangar door to allow an indoor-outdoor flow, and we are able to do that for our guest speaker events, athletic banquets, charity fund-raisers, and much more. It’s the perfect space to bring the community to the school, and to also bring in the community to see the amazing achievements of our students, and how they may be able to get involved and support the students’ education as a result.



Taryn on the Importance of Community Engagement in Spatial Design

In my work in educational design, I have found that community organizations, nonprofits, and businesses can have a huge impact by stepping up and providing support and resources. The community spaces at Canyon View High School, such as the Accelerator, facilitate these kinds of partnerships. While some businesses and organizations have begun to use spaces on campus like the White Box and theater to host events and engagement opportunities, I think there could be much greater participation from businesses having access to a space like that. Canyon View has hosted local companies for their own strategic planning processes. Opportunities like this allow organizations to get to know Phillip a little better and realize the value of the potential for engaging with the students and creating lasting connections with the Canyon View community. They may also see some students’ work and realize that they can be of support for a project, which would benefit both the businesses and the students. In education, having those spaces that can start to build those relationships and facilitate that ebb and flow of communication is key. Realistically, educators can’t handle all of the needs coming into their doors every day through students. I really feel like this disparity can be filled by forging stronger relationships with surrounding organizations, and the design of Canyon View’s communal spaces allows for them to bridge that gap.


Part 5: The Future of Canyon View

Phillip on Canyon View Finding Their New Normal During COVID

With our response to COVID, as with essentially every school in the country, I think we’re building the plane as we fly it. With our different career pathways, we have been encouraging our teachers to get creative with activities they can give students, using tools that can be found around the home while in a remote-learning model. For example, one of our agricultural classes completed a soil test and a soil lab at home. The students used soil that they acquired themselves and compared their findings over Zoom. Also, with multiple activities we had drive ups, where students could come to the school to pick up little kits with materials that are not as readily accessible. We have been trying to do the best that we can to get simple materials to our students so they can complete these activities at home. That being said, our school was ahead in adopting a remote learning model in that we had been using Google Classroom from year one, which allowed us to keep our main component for housing our instructional resources consistent. We also encouraged our students to learn how to manage their own day when in-person, so this translated directly to learning from home. For example, we have always urged our students to email their teachers and counselors directly instead of using a parental intermediary, and promoting this sense of autonomy from the start has proven beneficial for students to continue having their voices heard even when learning from home, as our educators are also encouraged to communicate directly with their students, thus maintaining completely open lines of communication.


Taryn on an Evolving, Hybrid, Post-COVID Educational Model

Thinking about the Canyon View learning environment post-COVID, the versatility of the spaces, including movable walls and furniture, is paramount, because this allows those spaces to accommodate whatever is needed in terms of teaching and learning. Of course, there are some components of education that are much harder to do virtually, including labs, experiments, and hands-on activities, that will benefit from being able to return to the physical space. However, there are other educational components that are relatively easy to complete virtually, so there may be a time when students are coming to school only at certain parts of the day or when certain classes call for it. In the future, I think that the individual learning style of the student may also come into play in determining the learning location of the student. It may be that some students come to campus all the time because that’s how they learn best, and other students maybe only come partially, because that works the best for what they need. The flexibility of Canyon View’s physical environment itself allows Phillip, his teachers, and his students to start to adjust those spaces based on the needs for that day or even more long term. Also, there was some really intentional work that happened with Canyon View’s leadership group, which was then communicated to teachers and students, around building the growth mindset. One of the facets of this mindset is risk taking, and there was specific language that was put into the expectations and practices around taking risks. We promoted the idea of celebrating the wins through learning from failure, and Phillip has maintained an open-door policy with his faculty, staff, and students that will only benefit the school in the imminent transition to post-COVID learning. This has really set up a culture of sharing, transparency, and dealing with problems head on. But it’s also important to note that while Phillip’s leadership team was organized and empowered from the start, they have not been afraid in the years following Canyon View’s opening to go back, review, and determine what is working and what needs to be adjusted. It is that constant re-evaluation that will allow Phillip’s team at Canyon View to continue to promote a culture of constant improvement and evolution in their learning environment for years to come.


Phillip on Cultivating the Canyon View Tradition

One of the challenges that we have every year is continuing, when we bring on new teachers or administrators, to go over expectations, and ensure that the expectations are continuing and supported. The absolute last thing that I want is for people to return to Canyon View years from now and to think that it was a beautiful campus in years one and two, but now it’s year seven and it’s changed. If we, in 20 years, want to continue to be at the forefront of education, we’ve got to continue to have transparent conversations and not be afraid to do something a little bit out of the box. To keep up that spirit of constant evolution, every year we ask our teachers what’s going well at Canyon View, what’s not going well, and then we determine how to get from good to great. We also look at schools across the nation each year through U.S. News reports, et cetera, to see what people are doing differently from us, and if we should make changes to implement these differences into our school. Our building allows us to constantly evolve because of components like our movable walls and curtains, but the mindset of the people working in the building is what brings it to life. Of course we may not be able to implement all of the changes we want to see in the immediate future, but we can get there, because we’ve collectively made the decision to get there. The challenge that I see in this mindset when I do talk to representatives from other schools is the idea that, “We’ve always done it this way. So we can’t do it a new way because our community won’t respond.” But if you are able to show your community success, you’re able to walk them through the why, and you’re able to do it in small increments and then continue to grow upon it, I think your community is going to say, “Why haven’t we been doing this the whole time?” Most parents just want their kids to be happy, and they want their kids to get an educational experience that they’re excited about. If schools can provide that opportunity, then their community is going to support them, but educators have to be willing. Somebody at some point in time has to be willing to step out on a leap of faith and say, “We’re going to do this.” You can put together a strategic plan to figure out how to do it, and it doesn’t mean that it’s all going to happen on day one, but it can happen eventually. However, if you continue to put excuses in the way, then you’re never going to get there. I tell people all the time, take a chance. At Canyon View, we implement little alterations constantly that spark significant change. Educators can change the landscape of what they’re doing and get their schools to their ideal future, it’s just going to take time.


To hear more about Canyon View from Phillip and Taryn, check out their interview on our podcast, Design is Everywhere: Episode 042 How Design Transformed a School