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Hittin’ the road for insight

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, Louisa. Above, Goochland / March 01, 2017
To prepare for building a new high school-middle school complex that could cost upward of $100 million, Mecklenburg officials first are hitting the road to see how other localities have managed the task.

Members of the Mecklenburg County joint education committee — three supervisors and three school board trustees — took a field trip on Thursday to look at design concepts in Louisa and Goochland counties, both of which have built schools for grades 6-12 at a single site.

The joint education committee includes trustees Glenn Edwards, Lindell Palmer and Wanda Bailey, and Supervisors Claudia Lundy, David Brankley and Glanzy Spain.

County Administrator Wayne Carter and Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols, ex officio members, were also part of Thursday’s fact-finding tour.

In February, members of both boards passed separate resolutions affirming their support for a new consolidated high/middle school complex. The design and location for the new facilities have yet to be determined.

The purpose of the trip was to give officials here some ideas for the best way to combine a high school and middle school at a single campus.

The idea of merging the facilities on a single campus was touted by Crabtree Roughbaugh & Associates, the consultants hired last year by Supervisors, as a way to save money on construction costs and operations over the years.

The campus may also offer advanced middle school students access to a greater variety of accelerated courses. But in some parents’ eyes it comes with a price — mixing impressionable adolescents with older teens.

According to officials in Goochland County, a consolidated school does not necessarily save money, and depending on the facilities design, the consolidation of grades 6-12 can create scheduling issues, particularly when it comes to sports.

Louisa County, which has the newer of the two high school facilities studied, built its school in 2014 after the 2011 earthquake rendered its high school building unusable. The middle school was not impacted by the earthquake; it was built in the mid-1990s.

While both the middle school and high school are located on the same campus, officials there chose to keep the schools separate. Doug Straley, who serves as the Superintendent for Louisa County Schools, said this nearby-but-apart model affords greater academic opportunities for advanced middle school students, but for the most part, students are kept apart with their own peer group.

The circumstances that drove the need for a new high school building in Louisa County were dictated by FEMA — because it was funding much of the construction — and the agency had significant input in the design choices. For the most part, Straley said the county’s mission was aligned with FEMA: to build a school facility that the community would support, that maximized physical comfort, was environmentally responsible and included design principles that made the building work better, last longer, cost less to renovate and maintain, and was adaptable to changing needs.

The high school is not LEADS certified — an energy efficiency rating system. Yet many of the same principles were incorporated into the design, explained director of facilities David Szalankiewicz. The result is an open and light filled facility with large windows covered with a film that blocks the heat but allows daylight to stream in.

The building also features wide stairwells and halls for easy traffic flow, an entryway designed with security in mind, but which affords access to public spaces such as the schools’ state-of-the-art auditorium.

Classrooms were designed for maximum flexibility — with rooms divided by folding screens made from acoustically absorptive materials.

Because of Louisa’s proximity to Charlottesville, officials chose to design and build the new school with an eye toward growth. The school division has about 1,450 students in its high and middle schools — much like Mecklenburg — but the schools can accommodate 1,750 students with 155 square feet of space per student.

Since land was limited, the school was built up, not out. It is three stories high, with two elevator banks for handicapped accessibility. The classrooms are grouped by discipline –science classes are together on the third floor, and rooms for academic subjects are on the left side of the building and public spaces are together on the right.

Sports are very important to students and adults in Louisa County and that’s reflected in the recreational spaces in the school. It has two gymnasiums, plus a small wrestling gym, batting “cages” that drop from the ceiling for indoor practices, a fitness center, weight room and several outdoor fields.

Straley said the one change he would make to the design is an indoor track. The school was initially planned with an indoor track encircling the second story of the gymnasium, but it was dumped from the final design. They also did not build a swimming pool on site, and he said he does not regret that decision.

“I did not want the community to get bogged down in a debate over a pool,” said Straley.

The pride of the Louisa facility is its state-of-the art auditorium with its Bose sound system. Straley admits they would not have a facility of this quality but for luck. They were the beneficiaries of a fundraising concert by Alan Jackson, after which he donated over $150,000 in proceeds to the school to outfit and upgrade its auditorium.

Goochland County’s high/middle school complex is technically one building, but the only shared facilities are the kitchen and the auditorium. They even have separate school mascots.

The 20-year-old building in Goochland County is markedly different from that in Louisa. It has none of the openness or airiness. While several rooms open to courtyards, they do not have any connection to a classroom or the cafeteria. They are simply green spaces that include a bench or two for seating.

The building has no operable windows and in at least one classroom, Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Raley will tell you the acoustics make the room hard to use. He has plans to redesign the space in the near future.

The complex is also lacking when it comes to outdoor field space, especially when it comes to spring sports. The middle school teams usually play their games on fields not located on the school campus.

There were a few spaces at Goochland, however, that impressed members of the joint education committee. These included the television studio, the large greenhouse where students are learning about hydroponic growing techniques, and the fieldhouse connected to the school’s football field.

The one message that both Straley in Louisa County and Raley in Goochland County reinforced as they discussed their schools was the support that came from their Board of Supervisors. Raley called it a “seamless partnership,” with more than two-thirds of the county’s $30 million annual budget coming from local taxpayers.

Goochland County’s student population is about half the size of Mecklenburg County. This fiscal year, Louisa County schools, which serve nearly 4,900 students with four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, received just under $31 million in local funding for its schools.

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