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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Designing a Dream: The Ultimate High School from Concept to Completion

The need for more space and up-to-date functionality prompts parents, students, and the community to get this school on the map.
By K. John Jones

With input from the entire community, architect K. John Jones helped design a state-of-the-art school.

Credit: K. John Jones

School overcrowding served as the impetus for a community to design and build a high school of the future. All segments of the community provided input and ideas for the facility, which was designed to accommodate new technologies and teaching techniques.

More than a thousand people filled the gymnasium of the recently opened Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Washington. After three-plus years of planning and construction, the first new secondary school in thirty years in the Everett School District (which includes Mill Creek) was about to be dedicated. Machine-generated smoke created a hazy backdrop for a big red ribbon traced in the air by students with lasers. Using an oversized pair of scissors, principal Rolynn Anderson symbolically cut the bow of light and the crowd cheered.

That moment in November 1994 was the realization of a dream for hundreds of teachers, students, parents, administrators, community leaders, contractors, and architects who'd worked together to design and build Jackson High.

The project began when the school district found itself faced with too many kids, not enough classrooms or teachers, and the feeling that its schools were in danger of being outpaced by rapidly changing technology. They decided to build a new facility and set goals that were lofty -- "state-of-the-art," "dedicated to lifelong learning," "a school for the twenty-first century" -- but lacking in specifics.

When my firm, The Dykeman Architects, was chosen to design the building, it felt like one of those times when you walk into a room, everyone gets quiet, turns to look at you, and the only thing you can do is to blurt out "What?!" The whole community was looking to us to help them through the process of making the dream come true.

Getting "Programmed"

The first order of business was to organize an Education Specifications committee to set the parameters of the project -- what architects call "programming." Since this was the District's most important initiative in decades, they pulled out all the stops, forming a task force of more than 120 people, including administrative staff, teachers, students, parents, and other community representatives. As the project manager, I saw this as a potential nightmare of competing priorities, but my fears proved groundless as committee members organized into smaller groups, focusing on the needs of different academic disciplines, community use, maintenance, and other design questions.

The majority of committee members were teachers and administrators, handpicked for their openness to change. They helped think through how to translate innovative educational practices into bricks and mortar and pushed us to create a variety of spaces for learning, from large rooms for mass meetings to smaller, more intimate spaces for group work. They were particularly interested in promoting a project-based, interdisciplinary curriculum that would better prepare students for the workplace by taking their individual needs and interests into account.

Community members helped define how the school would be used after hours, leading to designs that ensured areas like the library and auditorium would be accessible to the public without creating traffic through the rest of the school. Students were especially interested in technologies that would help prepare them for their future careers.

With the program in hand, design work started. Using a combination of computer-aided design and drafting software and manual technologies (architects just can't give up sketching on napkins), we went through several versions of the building plan. Much discussion occurred over how spatial relationships between classrooms could facilitate an integrated approach to teaching as well as ensuring flexibility to update the building in the future. The final result was a three-inch binder full of concepts and design specifics -- the blueprint for our shared dream.

Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Washington.

Credit: The Dykeman Architects

Turning Dream into Reality

Today, the dream is a reality. The product of our collaboration is a two-story building that is arranged in three wings with room for 1,500 students. The first wing consists of a core of science and technology labs on both levels, surrounded by general-purpose classrooms on the perimeter; this relationship was chosen to make it easier to conduct interdisciplinary activities.

The second wing houses administrative offices and an area that, due to lack of funds to build separate facilities, serves as a combination auditorium, lecture hall, commons, and cafeteria. Students gather there for lunch and other activities, but on special occasions it can be converted to a fully functional auditorium. The area has acoustically articulated walls and ceilings, full theater lighting and sound systems, a raised proscenium stage, and a flat floor in the seating area. Fully upholstered theater seats are built on telescopic platforms that can be deployed or retracted with the flip of a switch.

The third wing houses a 3,000-seat gym and other physical education facilities.

All areas of the school are outfitted with fiber optic cables to allow for networking of computers in all general-purpose classrooms and science labs. Some areas are even more technologically enriched, including a distance learning classroom that features interactive video conferencing, a TV production studio with closed-circuit capabilities, and several technology labs with specialized equipment.

Students and teachers use all of this technology in myriad ways. Jackson students, for example, have worked with University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab to explore virtual reality. They designed a three-dimensional model of Washington State that teachers geography by letting computer users take a simulated journey through the state's terrain.

Projects like this are an integral part of the new curriculum Jackson implemented in conjunction with opening the facility. The school now has longer classes, and teachers teach in teams. All students are required to take courses necessary for college admission, and, of course, the curriculum emphasizes technology and the use of informational resources, including new networked relationships with other schools, public and private agencies, and data sources.

These changes have not come without controversy. The teaching staff invested a great deal of effort to develop the new curriculum, but some parents were concerned about having their children venture into unfamiliar territory and transferred them to other schools.

As for the facility, it is performing up to the community's lofty expectations. I'm proudest of the fact that it's designed to handle change -- it can easily accommodate new technologies and teaching techniques, even ones that haven't yet been imagined. It should well serve the needs of students, educators, and the community for many years to come.

K. John Jones is a principal of The Dykeman Architects.

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