At GBA, we foster and celebrate buildings that are healthy and high performing, have minimal effects on the environment, and raise the bar for performance. Our Green and Healthy Schools Academy (GHSA) works with educators, administrators, students, and community members to bring innovative, inclusive, collaborative, inspiring places of learning into our region’s schools. The Chartiers Valley School District (CVSD) – a graduate of the GHSA School Sustainability Culture Program – brought that process full-circle when it recently broke ground on the replacement of its middle and high schools in Collier Township.
The forthcoming facilities embrace a student-centered approach to education by accommodating diverse and personalized learning experiences in synergetic and flexible spaces, where the buildings can foster creativity and be models of sustainability. We are thrilled to highlight the thoughtful, inclusive, and innovative process that has brought the district to this exciting point. We believe the completion of this project will be a watershed moment in our region, setting a new standard for how school design and construction will take place.
THE HEALTHY, HIGH PERFORMING SCHOOL EMERGES
At the onset of the project, the CVSD administrative team knew they would settle for nothing less than a healthy and high performing school, and that to get something other than a conventional school building, they needed to embark on a collaborative, patient, and innovative design process. The architect-of-record, IKM Inc. of Pittsburgh, took that to heart and worked diligently to create the engagement processes that would give the entire community ownership in the project and yield the best results. By convening and facilitating School Design Advisory Teams (SDAT) comprised of students, teachers, administrators, and community members, the architects were able to elicit visions, opinions, and ideas from a wide range of stakeholders. What was working well? What did they want to be different?
“Most schools are built with a central corridor and classrooms on either side, resulting in inflexible, unmodifiable spaces that hardly allow for collaboration either inside or outside the classroom,” states Matt Hansen, Associate at IKM. “The way schools are currently built was conceived around the 1940s methodology, when the goal was to get kids into schools, bring them up and prepare them for work in the factory. A model of mass production, you could say. Unfortunately, today’s schools are still being built using that same methodology.” The Chartiers Valley community knew it was ready for something new.
We believe the completion of this project will be a watershed moment in our region, setting a new standard for how school design and construction will take place.
Research shows that different kids thrive in different learning environments. Some learn best via presentation, while some excel through hands-on learning or when moving around (kinesthetic learning). “When you strive to create a school where all kids can learn best, you come up with a very different kind of school in order to accommodate different modalities and learning attributes,” Matt said. “How can we configure these schools to embrace these differences, and give as many kids as much of a chance at succeeding as possible?”
IT TAKES A TEAM
The uniqueness of this project will not be found in the materials used or mechanical systems selected alone. The real innovation is in the process by which the building’s design came into being. The design process started in September 2014 with a community summit that included faculty, staff, students, parents, community members, administrators, and the school board. As a group, they assessed the needs of the schools and gathered ideas about what people would like to see in their school. From there, the SDATs were created and convened more than a dozen times during the 2014-15 school year. They visited schools locally and nationally to see innovative approaches in practice and dream about what could be possible for CVSD. Their concepts were shared at monthly community summits, allowing opportunities for anyone to learn about the status and details of the project, ask questions, provide feedback, and be a part of the process. This type of open communication, collaboration, and free thinking is not the norm in school construction.
Kara Droney, Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships at CVSD, recalls that before they could talk about what the building would look like, they had to talk about learning – how it happens and what types of environments promote the type of learning the CVSD community values. Teachers and administrators were challenged to understand their objectives, criteria, and needs. They put their heads together to determine how they wanted to teach. They came up with nine guiding principles that would drive decision-making throughout the process.
What is the benefit of this deliberate and thoughtful process? What are the results of a continual exchange of ideas involving so many people from various perspectives?
- A beautiful building design that will be inspiring, sustainable, and a laboratory for 21st century learning;
- A community that is excited about, committed to, and ready to invest in its schools;
- A shared vision, because everyone was involved from the start and feels like the y were a valued part of the process;
- A process that will hopefully impact school construction in Western Pennsylvania moving forward;
- An architecture firm that created a renewed vision for developing their community, and established new ways of engaging, researching, and planning to ensure their projects reach their greatest potential.
If there are three words that encompass the vision, plan, and goals for this project, they are holistic, collaborative, and transformative. It’s been a very impactful project for those involved. Kara Droney notes, “The process isn’t always easy. It takes a lot of time and effort on the part of many. However, putting in the time and effort was incredibly worth it. We will have schools that the community is proud of, and will help our students succeed for generations to come.”
IKM gained a perspective and involvement in the education sector that they hadn’t had previously, along with a newfound understanding of their role in their community. They learned that the status quo isn’t acceptable, and they want to be a disruptive force to advance educational buildings and environments into the future. “The opportunity is now,” Matt said. “You don’t build a school every five years. You might build one every 50, maybe. If we don’t get it right, we have to wait a long time to try again.”
Chartiers Valley’s new middle and high schools will change the way schools will be built in the 21st century. We don’t have to be constrained by the same process that has created school buildings for the past 75 years. We don’t have to prioritize speed, uniformity, and lowest price above all else. We can value other things, too, such as what CVSD laid out in their guiding principles: being the heart of the community, fostering meaningful collaboration, being a model of sustainability, and encouraging total wellness. We hope that other districts, leaders and citizens will look at CVSD’s project and be inspired to try something new in their own communities. Like Matt Hansen said, a new school building is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Let’s do it right, and help shape the education system not of today or yesterday, but of tomorrow.
Check out this video for a peek at what the campus will look like: