An Educational Magnet

Schools have always been an important focus of community activity and involvement. When Westbrook, Maine, committed to building a new middle school to replace the overcrowded 40-year-old Wescott Junior High School, it was no surprise that many in the community wanted to be involved.

The design of a major new school is a rare event in the life of a community. In many places, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For Westbrook, the community and educators took to heart the task of creating a school that would serve as an educational magnet for students and a community/performing arts center for residents for years to come.

Their involvement went far beyond what architects had previously experienced in the over 100 schools they had designed in Maine and northern New England. Over 400 people — city residents, teachers, students, councilors and school committee members — actively participated on 17 sub-committees making recommendations on numerous components of the school’s design, operation, location and use of technology.

In addition, the community felt so strongly about the need for a performing arts center, which the state would not fund, that they financed its $4.1-million cost through a bond issue, which passed overwhelmingly. There are many other examples of community recommendations that made the new $27.5-million school, which opened January, 2010, one of the most advanced middle schools in Maine.

The 17 subcommittees’ charge was to work with the architect 
and other appropriate parties — school department, faculty, staff, the city, other stakeholders and local/regional/state organizations — to ensure that the components, systems and programs under their purview would support the educational mission of the school. Whatever was developed had to be in keeping with the approved educational specifications, earlier conceptual design and total project budget. Subcommittee members were required to familiarize themselves with these documents and use them to inform their discussions and recommendations.

The numerous subcommittee meetings resulted in thousands of emails and ideas and in near information overload. Architects attended all of the subcommittee meetings and provided the background and knowledge during discussions to narrow focus to realistic and doable suggestions. It was the responsibility of the architect to meet weekly and report back to the steering committee on what was coming out of the subcommittees and provide background on which recommendations warranted serious study.

Examples of ideas that percolated up from the subcommittees and found a place in the final school design included:
  • using heavy timber trusses in the entry and library to acknowledge Westbrook’s long history in the timber industry in Maine;
  • creating a community-use wing, anchored by the state-of-the-art Westbrook Performing Arts Center (WPAC), that could be closed off from the rest of the school and have its own distinct entrance and parking area;
  • creating common areas on each floor of the classroom wing that can accommodate an entire team of students (three classrooms) for group work and presentations;
providing a display case in each common area for student 2D and 3D work;
the inclusion of a STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) classroom into the school;
providing a moveable partition between the STEM technology lab and the computer lab, allowing for a dynamic work lab with attached classroom lecture space;
locating a learning lab and small workgroup room adjacent to common areas in the classroom wing, providing quiet spaces for small group work adjacent to the main presentation/gathering area;
locating the library on the second floor above the main entrance and concourse to allow this space to be the center of the three-story classroom wing, as well as be accessible to the community for after-hours use; and
  • providing moveable partitions in the cafeteria, greatly expanding the usefulness of the cafeteria to create an ideal venue for simultaneous school and community group meetings.

Performance Center Component
Westbrook is situated directly west of Portland. Throughout its history, it made its mark as a mill town with a strong connection to Maine’s lumber industry. While townsfolk embrace this mill tradition, the town is moving away from it and undergoing a renaissance. The reason for so much support for the theater/community component, which passed a bond referendum with 64-percent of the vote, was to create a stronger cultural heritage. The bond issue for the basic school passed by a wider margin — 73.5 percent.

According to WPAC Manager Jamie Grant, a nationally known theater lighting director, the performing arts center is the most high-tech theater complex in Maine, and in the top tier in the nation. While there are a number of smaller repertory and summer theaters in Maine, and a 1,900-seat auditorium/theater in nearby Portland, its 1,000-seat capacity fills the need for a mid-sized venue.

Educational Aspects
The 136,800-square-foot school is divided into two distinct pieces — the more public and community-oriented spaces such as the gymnasium, cafeteria, kitchen, administrative offices and WPAC, and the quieter student-oriented academic wing for 600 students. There is a single two- and three-story classroom wing to minimize the footprint and to make the most efficient envelope for the spaces. All spaces are accessible from a central lobby and corridor full of natural light that goes from the front student entrance all the way to the separate community entrance on the other side. Each entrance has a separate parking area, and the community entrance is closer to the street, while the student “front” entrance, with its drop-off lanes and parking lot around back, faces south.

The three-story classroom wing is designed to break the school down into smaller “schools within a school.” Each classroom wing floor consists of one whole grade (6th/7th/8th), with support spaces such as resource room, common space, learning lab, composite room, small group room, faculty workroom, team storage, student lockers and toilet and custodial facilities. The variety of rooms on each floor provides critical support to the classrooms and essential breakout space for multiple teaching styles and learning activities.

The library is centrally located on the second floor of the classroom wing so that students need only to travel one floor up or down to use it. Other core spaces and unified arts spaces are on the first two floors to minimize vertical circulation. Art and music rooms are clustered near the WPAC and stage because of the interdisciplinary opportunities this arrangement supports. The educational part of the school can be locked off and secured when the more public and community parts of the building are in use after hours. All major egress points can quickly be locked down or opened from a central control point in case of emergency.

Now that a full school year has been completed, residents are pleased with their new middle school. The old one was obsolete almost as soon as it opened. This one won’t be. Building engineering systems were designed with more capacity than presently needed thus it will be easy in the future to add another wing without any major building upgrades. “This facility has elevated Westbrook’s standing in the area and lifted up people’s spirits,” according to School Board member and active participant in the process Greg Smith. “The school is a lasting symbol of community pride.” 

Daniel Cecil, AIA, is the K-12 practice principal and Anthony Roy is a designer with Harriman in Auburn/Portland, Maine.