In 2021, a group of project advocates – educational thought-leaders from across Stafford County, VA – gathered over the span of six weeks to envision a new high school for their community. They did so virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic with the understanding that their new school would be one of the first planned and opened in a post-pandemic world. Their conversations occurred within the context of the “Profile of a Virginia Graduate” and their own “All Centuries Learners” framework. In general, they envision a diverse, inclusive, real-world environment supporting a new model of instruction that recognizes students as individuals and supports differentiated teaching and learning. In particular, they envision a school that blurs the lines between workplace and school and responds to educational programs today and tomorrow by being communal, interdisciplinary, versatile, and sustainable.
- The new school shall be communal. At the heart of the new school is the community within and beyond its walls. Within, the sense of community is fostered through inclusion, openness, and transparency; an environment that is warm and welcoming and in which each student can find their place; and one in which copious resources, spaces, and technology are available in support of hands-on, collaborative, communal experiences and activities. Beyond, the school welcomes the inclusion of the greater community by creating appropriate access to the school and providing spaces for community connections and activities. In addition, the design of the new school should respond to the context in which it is set by being site-specific, leveraging indigenous materials, and earnestly reflecting the community it serves.
- The new school shall be interdisciplinary. Consistent with workplaces in which professionals collaborate across disciplines, the new school will be interdisciplinary. Departments in the traditional sense will cease to exist, and students and teachers will work across disciplines exploring opportunities at intersections. Real-world, hands-on, problem-based learning will encourage collaboration, promote citizenship, and build essential critical thinking, creation, and communication skills. In response, the physical learning environment will be more akin to a modern workplace transcending traditional school facilities by providing a wide variety of learning spaces to accommodate differentiated instruction, individual study, small-group collaboration, whole-group learning, and combined studies.
- The new school shall be versatile. Versatility will allow learning to flex in the moment and over time. In the moment, the physical learning environment should provide multiple variations on the kinds of places and spaces in which teachers facilitate and students learn and, further, should allow them the ability to adjust multiple variables – furniture, technology, light levels, environmental conditions, etc. – to create a specific condition or meet a specific need. Over time, the new school should be resilient, anticipating that the curriculum will change. To the greatest extent possible, the learning environments should not be program-specific, demising walls should not be load-bearing, and the infrastructure – power, data, heating and cooling, etc. – should float. Further, the building should be designed with future additions for more student capacity in mind.
- The new school shall be sustainable. The built and natural environments that form the new school should be sustainable in the broadest sense by leveraging sustainable techniques and technologies to minimize its environmental footprint and maximize operational savings over time (in accordance with a targeted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Schools certification); promoting the health, well-being, and comfort of its occupants (utilizing the appropriate WELL Building Standard); and encouraging equity and inclusion through supportive settings that eliminate barriers, celebrate diversity, and teach the importance of respect for self and others. In sum, the learning environment should be efficient and effective, healthy and well, safe and secure, exciting and inviting, and – at its best – should reflect and reinforce lessons in sustainability, stewardship, wellness, and equity taught within and beyond its walls.
This statement broadly reflects the vision of the project advocates, but to lend color to the vision and put a finer point on it, it’s worth noting some of the individual comments made in support of it. One advocate noted, “This high school is nothing like its predecessors…” Another said, “...the natural light seems to enliven the students and infuse the area with energy. I can easily see across the building and into classrooms on multiple levels.” Still, another described a “...fully immersive, unrestricted, and inclusive learning environment… where the exterior and interior become one.” One more seemed to sum it up concluding, “...the outside and inside work well together and the spaces [are] alive with activity and the students are part of a thriving community!”