New high school designed by and for students

Posted toEducation News Virginia Beach

By Elisabeth Hulette
The Virginian-Pilot
© March 10, 2013


Most years, Chris Freeman’s Advanced Placement Environmental Studies students design a hypothetical, sustainable house for a class project.

More recently, they’ve been designing a high school – theirs. That’s how plans for the rebuild of Kellam High came to include courtyards full of vegetable gardens and native swamp plants.

They’re just a few of the features that designers claim make this a school building unlike any other. Instead of separating English, math and other departments, the new Kellam will have six “learning communities” – wings that each house multiple subjects, designed to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary learning. Flexible, open spaces will abound alongside environmentally friendly, energy-efficient features. And at every step of the way, designers have included ideas from the teachers and students they say best know what a modern school needs.

“We wanted to design the building from the inside out, based on the goals of the educational program,” said Mike Ross, architect of the project with Virginia Beach-based firm HBA. “Rather than starting with the classroom, we started with the learner workstation. Basically, we reinvented what a classroom can and should be.”

Construction began in October at the site on West Neck Road, not far from the city’s Municipal Center. Original plans called for a spring 2014 move-in date, but workers ahead of schedule are now aiming earlier, possibly for not long after Christmas. Last year, Kellam served about 1,800 students, according to state data; the new facility can house 2,000.

The building will cost $70 million, and the total project – including land, furniture and technology – will cost $100 million. The price is in line with statewide averages over the past few years, Ross said.

Tony Arnold, director of facilities planning and construction for the division, said with inflation adjustments, it’s comparable to the last high school Virginia Beach bid out – Landstown High School in 1998, for $41 million. Over time, he said, features like geothermal heat and high windows that let in natural light will save money on utilities.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Arnold said. “Ten to 20 years ago, buildings this size were energy hogs. Now they use a lot less.”

From above, the building looks like a spaceship – round, with a central cafeteria-common space branching into elevated walkways that extend over three courtyards to the six learning communities.

Teachers helped come up with the design, Ross said. In line with the division’s strategic plan that pushes “21st-century skills,” they’re increasingly collaborating among departments and asking students to tackle projects and problems in small groups. That’s why Kellam’s classrooms will have removable walls to create large spaces, glass-enclosed rooms where students can work in small groups while remaining under supervision, and wider sections of hallways where they can spread out their work.

Apart from the learning communities, there’s an arts wing with band and practice rooms and an auditorium, and an athletic wing with three basketball courts and two auxiliary gyms. Outside, the first artificial-turf football field at any of Virginia Beach’s public schools is already installed.

The three courtyards Freeman’s students helped design dominate the layout. One is an edible garden full of planters for growing vegetables for possible use by culinary students; one will house an outdoor learning area with benches made from hardwood trees cut down to make way for the school; and one will filter rainwater runoff through native Virginia swamp plants.

“You want to talk about lifelong learning?” Freeman said. “Having students take part in something real and tangible – that really fostered a sense of creativity and passion that I haven’t seen in 10 years of teaching.”

That was the idea behind gathering ideas from the school community, Arnold said. In the 1960s, schools were built cheaply. They were meant to last 40 years. Nobody cared when they were torn down, he said, because no one had a real stake in how they were built.

Now schools are built to last 75 to 100 years, and they’re designed around the needs and interests of a community.

“The way we program and design buildings today, the amount of stakeholder and public input – it’s dramatically different,” Arnold said.

“I think Kellam is just going to be a great building.”


One thought on “New high school designed by and for students

  1. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long
    comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyway, just wanted to say excellent blog!

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