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See how Design 375 transformed the look and feel of 25 Montreal schools – with students leading the charge.

What if students got to be in charge of what their school looked like? If you let kids transform the appearance of their school would it also transform the way they learned?

Two years ago, the principal at École Saint-Henri in Montreal’s South-West Borough approached Youth Fusion with an idea for kids to transform the exterior look and feel of their school as part of an urban planning curriculum. “The principal asked me to come and look at the school’s façade,” recalls Gabriel Lopez, President of Youth Fusion. “We were already doing fashion, cinema and robotics projects with the school, and the principal wanted to add urban planning.”

The concept was for students to analyze the surrounding environment and community, and then create a 3D presentation of how they would transform the building and surrounding yard. The project won approval, and the community and partners stepped in to help. The final outcome was such a success, that Design 375º was born.

The Birth of Design 375º

The thinking behind Design 375º was to open the project to more schools as part of Canada’s sesquicentennial. Students could give their schools a birthday makeover and leave a lasting legacy for future students to enjoy. In the process, students would apply skills they were learning in school to real-life work situations.

For the 2017 project, 25 schools were chosen. “The goal was to choose schools primarily from disadvantaged and socioeconomically struggling neighbourhoods,” says Lopez. Youth Fusion also wanted to represent schools from all five boards (three Francophone and two English), and have an even split between elementary and secondary schools. Schools were chosen based on which ones needed the most exterior love, and who had a teacher who was on board and excited to support the project and make it part of the curriculum.

By September 2016, all the requests were received; the 25 schools were chosen, and the wheels were put in motion to start the Design 375º project.

One School’s Legacy

For Louis Bilodeau, a grade 10 and 11 history and contemporary world teacher at LaurenHill Academy, leading the project was a no brainer: “I’ve always liked to do hands-on projects with my students.” Bilodeau feels applied learning develops a sense of community and ownership amongst the students, which can’t be replicated easily in a class situations.

“For this project, the board allowed me to step outside the boundaries of the curriculum,” he says, of his two grade 11 classes. Five student teams came up with five projects to transform the school, with the goal of creating communal spaces where students could meet and relax that also focused on sustainability.

The first part of the project was theoretical: three months of reading, learning about urban development, sustainability and environmental issues. The students also visited the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and had to report on what they learned.

Then students applied what they learned in creating their projects. “The kids had to go through a public consultation process, like they would at a real-life architectural firm,” recalls Bilodeau. They had to present to the grade 10 students and the teachers, and convince them that their plans should be chosen.

In the end, students decided to merge the two winning ideas — Hexagon of Happiness and Bench Buddies — into a Zen garden. “Stress came back as a huge issue for the students, so the goal was to create a meeting place where people could relax,” says Bilodeau.

After two months of outdoor work, the garden was finished in late May. “The project changed the children in so many ways,” says Bilodeau. “In the beginning many weren’t too sure of what was going on. By the end, there was such amazing camaraderie and perseverance. The kids really wanted to finish!”

The Community Impact

Lopez says the Design 375º projects drew together people of all backgrounds and skill sets. University students were hired as project coordinators to oversee development. Volunteers included teachers, professors, artists, architects, parents, community members and RBC employees. In all, nearly 10,000 people took part and the project required roughly 375,000 hours. “It takes a village to transform a school,” he says.

“A lot of people questioned whether [grades five, six, 10 and 11] students could lead an urban project,” says Lopez. But the results of all 25 schools are amazing! As an added bonus, school attendance levels soared. Many of the schools struggled with absenteeism — Design 375º changed that. “Kids saw how their studies could be applied in the real world and they really wanted to complete their project,” says Lopez. The project didn’t just change schools; it impacted the future of many students who took part.

Lopez hopes that Design 375º won’t end with Canada’s 150 celebrations. “In the upcoming school year we hope say yes to other schools that didn’t make the cut this time around.” This is such a unique project, and Lopez hopes that it catches the attention of other cities, and that Design 375º will become something that impacts communities on a global level.

And if you’re looking for more amazing ways youth have given back to their communities for the country’s sesquicentennial, check out how much good can be done with $150 at Make 150 Count.