All new teachers must have at least seven years of experience, said Brown. Even assistant teachers, assigned full-time to younger grades and part-time for classes of higher levels, must have at least three years. Drawing on GEMS international community—which includes schools in the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, and Egypt—roughly one third of teachers at Chicago’s GEMS have more than four years of experience teaching abroad. Students regularly conference with counterparts around the globe via touch-screen video displays mounted in every classroom.
In addition to the video displays and iMacs, Brown said the school emphasizes tactile learning and face-to-face interaction. Classrooms feel more like living rooms, with adjustable furniture typically clustered for group learning exercises rather than blackboard lectures. A team at bKL Architecture oriented all of the classrooms toward the south, facing Lakeshore East Park and views of Lake Michigan. The six 720-square-foot classrooms per floor enjoy abundant natural light and class sizes of less than 18 students.
The red, yellow, and blue on the building’s facade reappear on dinnerware in the cafeteria, whose tables are all dry erase boards for lunchtime learning and games. Variable-color LEDs overhead and modular serving tables lend versatility to the space, which includes a terrace for al fresco dining. Elsewhere splashes of color enliven a palette of clean white surfaces and warm oak.
“Color adds vibrancy. It adds life. It seemed appropriate,” said bKL principal Tom Kerwin. In the library, children play, read, or talk beneath three bowed collections of honeycomb acoustical panels that help delineate separate areas within an open plane, framed by white oak, lime green, and orange walls. That character extends throughout the classrooms, where students have hung pencil drawings depicting the dust bowl, raised baby trout from eggs in a science room aquarium, or asked via the whiteboard “What does an architect do?”
If GEMS’ Chicago expansion stays on schedule for 2016, it may find itself with another deep-pocketed neighbor from overseas. Chinese developer Dalian Wanda Group plans to erect a $900 million, 1,150-foot-tall skyscraper on the site to the east, set to open in 2018 if the city approves the project.