Building for Change

Patterned after the baronial halls of Europe, the Great Hall of Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Wash., captures the excellence of a fine music hall, with its sound-enhancing structure, theatrical lighting and dramatic acoustical draperies. The school’s students will also tell you it’s one great place to eat lunch.

An enclosed, meandering galleria, complete with balconies, replaces cold stone hallways, linking groupings of learning spaces designed to create an open atmosphere. Steps, like a grand staircase, descend from the street-level gate into a large open courtyard located outside the Great Hall. There, the sights and sounds of the streets almost disappear, providing students with a safe haven in which to congregate.

As Lorne McConachie, the architect for Edmonds-Woodway High School, says, at an age when appearances are everything, it’s the place for students to see and be seen.

The recent earthquake that struck the Seattle area did only cosmetic damage to this three-year-old school, giving credence to Edmonds-Woodway’s claim of structural durability; however, the school’s durability was planned to extend beyond its brick and mortar physical presence.

Constructed as a dual replacement for the uninhabitable Edmonds and aging Woodway High Schools, Edmonds-Woodway was designed on a 50-year plan -- not only will this school still be standing, but it should remain viable through projected changes in the delivery of educational curriculum.

Planning the Future Forward

Edmonds-Woodway was one of three schools slated for construction. Also on the table for design were Meadowdale High School and Seaview Elementary.

According to Cheri Hendricks, design and construction manager for the Edmonds School District, located in suburban Seattle, the pre-design phase, “when you figure out what you really want,” involved 40 to 60 people, including school administrators, teachers, parents, students and local government leaders. It took about three and a half months, including research, site visits to other schools and discussions with educational futurists and technology experts, to arrive at a list of the four major goals to be embodied in the school’s design.

McConachie, a principal of Washington state-based Bassetti Architects, says the four goals addressed in the design phase were these: The school must be adaptable to ongoing educational reform; it must be able to accommodate changes in teaching modes and curriculum models, while enduring a 50-year life span; the school must be able to integrate technology, both current and future; and the school must offer facilities that foster community partnerships.

Next came the programming phase, involving meetings with the building users, to understand how the building would be used. They also studied a variety of curriculum models, including the interdisciplinary team-teaching model, the magnet school model and other integrated learning concepts. The state of Washington does not mandate what curriculum model to use, Hendricks explains. Currently, Edmonds-Woodway operates within a subject-based departmental model.

Meshing everyone’s expectations was more difficult than expected. “There are probably a thousand ways to deliver education. No one model is a perfect fit to the school,” Hendricks says. “When you plan, design and build a building, you are literally putting your beliefs about learning into concrete.”

McConachie says they designed a school that can be used for any and all of the curriculum models: “The school was organized as a village, in theory. There’s a whole language within the architecture.”

The $30-million campus was constructed on the site of the former Edmonds High School. Originally, the funding was to cover 235,000 square feet of building area, but delays in passing the bond issue precipitated higher construction costs, resulting in a reduction in the size of the school buildings to about 218,000 square feet.

The buildings, however, were constructed without sacrificing flexibility and durability, Hendricks says. The construction employed a structural steel frame, and few interior bearing walls were created so that the buildings may be reconfigured later, if needed, she adds.

Designing a Village

The individual classroom is still the basic unit for learning, but four two-story learning clusters, or “neighborhoods,” were created, says McConachie. Located along one side of the galleria, each floor of the cluster has four classrooms, two of which are divided by operable, soundproof walls. These can be opened to create one large classroom that can be used for team or interdisciplinary teaching.

All the classrooms have extra-wide double glass doors that open into the “flex area” in each learning cluster, which has the added benefit of allowing line-of-sight supervision. According to Allen Weiss, principal of the school, the students use the flex areas frequently. The space allows students to congregate in small groups for studying or working on group projects.

Each cluster also includes two laboratories, a teacher preparation area, a conference room and storage room, and every learning space makes use of natural daylight that, McConachie says, has been shown to improve learning.

The buildings are hard-wired for computer access, and the on-site main distribution frame room has its own server. Wireless technology was in its infancy when Edmonds-Woodway was designed and “there wasn’t much available,” McConachie explains; however, the buildings may be modified to incorporate wireless access.

Along the other side of the galleria is the Great Hall, which serves as a premiere-quality music performance hall, as well as the school’s cafeteria. McConachie says the shoebox-style Great Hall was more economical to construct than a standard auditorium.

Adjoining the Great Hall are the school’s kitchen and a sidewalk-type cafe, as well as the gymnasium, activities and weight rooms, and locker rooms. The kitchen is outfitted with a separate ventilation system, which prevents cooking smells from filtering into the Great Hall or other adjacent areas.

Bordering the courtyard entry area are the administrative offices, library and counseling areas on one side, and the freestanding arts building on the other. The highlight of the arts building is its intimate 150-seat theater. The building also houses a drama room, music room, art rooms and a shop room.

Security issues figured prominently in the design of the Edmonds-Woodway campus. No one area in the school can be used as a control point by potential terrorists, enabling a high degree of risk management. “It was designed to make a safe place for students,” McConachie explains.

Edmonds-Woodway inevitably has become one of the most popular high schools in the area. The school was designed to hold 1,600 students for six periods per day, but it is functioning eight periods a day with 1,800 students, operating in split shifts, says Weiss.

Using block scheduling, students attend each of their classes on alternate days. Classes are offered in four periods of 90 minutes each, with a daily 30-minute advisory period, and 10 minutes between classes. According to Weiss, the scheduling allows for more in-depth study, involves less stress on the students and creates less homework.

After regular school hours, Edmonds-Woodway remains a major center of activity. Community youth groups, hospital-sponsored classes, the community orchestra and other activities keep the school jumping. Weiss says that 60 to 70 percent of his assistant’s time is spent booking events at the school. In the last three years, 10 weddings have taken place in the school’s Great Hall and courtyard.

Some suggestions, such as including a community swimming pool and a police station, were discussed, but eventually were eliminated from the plans. Yet the community has pride of ownership in the facilities that were created.

A Few Ticks and Flaws

But even paradise has its bugs. Hendricks says a post-occupancy survey is planned for the near future and, although anecdotal reports from the students are mostly positive, there are a number of outstanding complaints, predominantly from the school’s staff.

One of the prime complaints noted by McConachie and Weiss is people wanting more space. Weiss says that teachers complain about classroom size, blaming the lack of space on the amount of square footage devoted to the flex areas.

Teachers also complain about insufficient storage space, though McConachie says each classroom was equipped with mobile, lockable storage cabinets. Furthermore, the staff complains that their lounge isn’t conveniently located because it is near the school’s kitchen.

Parking is tight, and there isn’t room for expansion on the site. It’s a huge building on a small parcel of land, Weiss says. But, he adds, “It really is a showplace school,” and the students appreciate it. Students take care of the school and there are no signs of the usual graffiti.

“Obviously, we didn’t create a vanilla building,” says Hendricks. They built a beautiful campus, with a design flexible enough to last for decades, but one that “stays out of the way,” and doesn’t impede learning.

Robbin Rittner-Heir is a Dayton-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.

A Few Free Resources

- ADL-- The Anti-Defamation League can provide to school administrators high-quality training and/or resource materials relating to hate groups -- 212/490-2525.

- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is the nation’s lead federal law enforcement agency in the area of illegal explosives. ATF personnel can provide free training of the highest quality in many areas of the country. The agency also produces printed materials that are well suited for school staff -- Arson and Explosives Division, 202/927-7930.

- United States Postal Inspectors have a great deal of knowledge concerning mail bombs. They can provide assistance with printed materials focused on prevention efforts and in many areas of the country, they can also provide training -- 800/654-8896.

- National Resource Center for Safe Schools is a federally funded school safety center that can provide a wide range of high-quality resources to schools without charge -- 800/268-2275.

- The School Safety Project of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency – Office of the Governor -- has 13 full-time school safety experts on staff. GEMA personnel offer a wide range of free technical assistance, training and response capabilities to all public and private schools in Georgia. The agency also shares its information by allowing out-of-state personnel to attend its seminars without charge, and by providing information on its general and secure Websites -- 404/635-7000 .