Creating a College-Going Mindset

Park 100, a popular business development in northwestern Indianapolis, welcomes a steady stream of commuters each morning. By 8 a.m., cars, trucks and vans fill the parking lots. However, Park 100’s newest tenants prefer a different mode of transportation. They come by school bus.

In 2012, the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township opened its new Pike Preparatory Academy and Pacers Academy High School in a converted office building within the business park. The two schools support the district’s alternative education programs for middle and high school students.

While the adaptive reuse of a former office building is an interesting approach to school construction, it is not the most compelling part of this story. From the beginning, Pike Township set out to change students’ perceptions of alternative education. To do so, the project team would need to reinvent the look and feel of the alternative education classroom.

A Place to Call Their Own
Much of the stigma associated with alternative education can be traced back to the quality of the educational facilities. Often, these programs are housed within traditional middle school or high school campuses. The tenant-like nature of this relationship only enhances the sense of “otherness” experienced by students.  

For years, Pike Preparatory Academy and Pacers Academy High School fell into the same category. Pike Prep’s middle school students attended classes on the campus of Guion Creek Middle School. Pacers Academy held classes in a small building on the south side of the district.

First and foremost, the purpose of the adaptive reuse project was to create a place that Pike Prep and Pacers Academy students could call their own. Rather than construct a new facility, the decision was made to renovate the existing office complex. 

As a result, Pike Prep and Pacers Academy High School students now share a school that is planned and designed specifically for their needs.

Looking Good
In many alternative education schools, the learning environment is institutional and uninspiring. Bland interiors and dark classrooms only serve to reinforce the stigma associated with these programs. Pike Township officials knew that to change students’ perceptions, they must change the aesthetics of the learning environment.

The new Pike Preparatory School and Pacers Academy High School would fit right in on almost any university or college campus. The interior features a host of bright, engaging colors. Classroom and corridors walls are orange and beige. The main lobby includes a bright green feature wall and a receptionist desk made of blonde wood. The result is a contemporary look that is student-friendly and accessible. 

In the central dining area, exposed building systems complement the high-end atmosphere. An undulating metal grid hangs above the corridors. Throughout the building, floor-to-ceiling windows enhance daylighting and transparency. The cumulative effect is the creation of a lively and engaging environment. 

The building is truly “a place where students want to be.”

Designed to Fit
A lack of customization is another shortfall of traditional alternative education facilities. Alternative education classes typically have fewer students and, therefore, require less space. They also place a greater emphasis on one-on-one instruction. When factors such as these are not taken into consideration, or the program is shoehorned into another campus, it is the students who suffer.

The Pike Preparatory School and Pacers Academy High School facility is designed to meet the specific needs of the district’s alternative education programs. To achieve this, renovations completely gutted the existing office building, constructing a flexible learning environment in its place.

Middle and high school classrooms are sized to accommodate smaller numbers of students, typically 10 to 15 per class. Movable furniture, including student desks and teacher stations, supports one-on-one and small group learning. In the middle school wing, science labs are incorporated directly into classrooms. This approach limits the amount of time students spend outside their homeroom.

At the center of the building, an open dining area doubles as a cafeteria and assembly venue. Dubbed the “Student Union,” the space includes booth seating and high and low tables. Soft seating and small tables in the  adjacent corridors offer additional opportunities for breakout sessions. 

Flexible and accessible technology is another key component of the project. In Pacers Academy High School, more than 75 percent of instruction is technology-driven. Recognizing this, the building includes a wireless network supporting the use of hand-held device or laptops. For large group activities, teachers can schedule classes in the well-equipped computer lab, located in the center of the high school wing.

Staying True to the Basics

While renovations created a customized learning environment, the adaptive reuse of the existing office building presented its own challenges. To enhance safety and security, the facility now includes a secure entry vestibule at the main entrance. All visitors must pass through the main lobby before gaining access to the academic areas. In addition, local codes required improvements to allow for educational uses in a business park. Building enhancements include a new fire alarm system, the integration of a sprinkler system and new fire separation walls.

The efficient and effective use of taxpayer money was another key consideration. The adaptive reuse approach provided the district with an efficient and low-cost way to create what was essentially a 13,325-square-foot new school building. Construction costs totaled $122 a square foot. Design and construction took just four months.

But while on time and on budget is a worthy goal, schools such as Pike Preparatory Academy and Pacers Academy High School are proof that school districts must strive for more. When it comes to alternative education, the status quo is not acceptable. The students enrolled in these programs deserve more than a place to learn. They deserve to be inspired. They deserve an enhanced sense of identity and pride. They deserve to view higher education as an obtainable goal, not a privilege offered only to others.

By taking a new approach to school planning and design, our educational communities can create a college-going mindset in all students. Doing so does not require tens of millions of dollars or expansive new campuses. It is simply a matter of taking a new look at an old problem, and applying appropriate and creative design principles.

As Pike Preparatory Academy and Pacers Academy High School proves, the results can be inspiring. 

Nathanial Jones is superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, near Indianapolis, Ind. William Payne, AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal with Fanning Howey, an educational facilities planning and design firm.