The Experiential Paradigm of Kellam High School

Kellam H.S. is targeted for a 2014 completion. All images courtesy of HBA.

Virginia Beach City is the third largest school system in the commonwealth, after Fairfax and Prince William counties. So City Schools Superintendent James G. Merrill, EdD, had power to his purpose when he undertook a massive effort to sharpen the city’s educational focus. One result will be the new Kellam High School, designed—concurrently with Merrill’s initiative, almost in a fast-track way—by HBA Architecture and Interior Design. Projected to be completed in early 2014, the 336,410-sf building on 108 acres has a projected construction cost of $77 million.

The designers were so observant of the school system’s strategic plan that they included elements of its Objective One (involvement of students in real-world problem solving) into the design process itself.

Compass to 2015

Although preliminary comparative studies showed that the graduation rate of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) was 82 percent, more than 10 percent higher than the national average, Superintendent Merrill was not satisfied. To define educational achievement and measure its progress, he launched “Compass to 2015: A Strategic Plan for Student Success,” which involved two years of work by district administrators, educators, outside experts, students, and the community at large. The result, displayed prominently on the VBCPS Web site, is a plan that condenses all of this study and discussion into one goal for plan implementation (“by 2015, 95 percent or more of VBCPS students will graduate having mastered the skills that they need to succeed as 21st century learners, workers, and citizens”), four outcomes, and five objectives.

For HBA, Objective One was a guiding principle in the design process and final outcome: “All teachers will engage every student in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous work through the use of innovative instructional practices and supportive technologies that will motivate students to be self-directed and inquisitive learners.”

The design team targeted certain development skills through their design, including: critical and creative thinking, innovation, and problem solving; effective communication and collaboration; and global awareness.

The architect’s focus on Compass to 2015 left an indelible impression on at least one VBCSB administrator, Assistant Superintendent Rodney J. Burnworth. He commends HBA Principal-in-Charge C. Michael Ross, AIA, REFP; Mike  is “well-versed in the division’s work, the philosophies of educational futurists, and problem-based learning and performance assessment,” Burnworth says. “He schooled us on sustainability and went above and beyond physical structure and grounds to engage the students in problem-based learning.”

One student team displays their garden solution.

Specifically, in one exercise involving five Kellam AP environmental science classes and one CADD class, 140 students competed in teams to design the school’s educational courtyard. The resulting scheme combines edible, gathering, and rain-water infiltration gardens into a single system for the science and culinary arts programs, a cistern irrigation system, gathering areas, and an outdoor café. The students come to understand natural hydrostatic systems, soil development, and student circulation patterns, and, as Burnworth points out, they came to appreciate how their work “contributed to the design of an authentic learning experience for generations of students to come.”

The gardens they designed connect those same students to the world into which they will be graduating as well, Ross notes. The building is targeting LEED® Gold certification, which encourages students to understand the interplay of sustainable design elements necessary to meet certain externally certified requirements. Monitoring the ongoing resource efficiency of the systems will also be part of hands-on curriculum over time.

Engagement affects recollection

Kellam’s plan is easy to navigate, and space adjacencies reinforce creative critical thinking.

New communication technologies are bound to generate new ways of reaching students, especially when one considers that students today are so comfortable with—perhaps even dependent upon—instant access to a universe of information. So educators and designers alike are focusing on how to direct that torrent of information into useable knowledge.
Often through informal learning, and certainly through a desire to know what their peers know, “students have progressed beyond consumers of content to become producers and publishers, too” Ross explains. A result seems to be that traditional “formal” teaching and learning methods are becoming less effective at engaging students and motivating them to learn.

“Across the nation, though, much of today’s school curriculum still presents students with assignments that lack a real-world context, with activities that ultimately lead either to a letter grade or proficiency at taking standardized tests,” Ross says. “Many students either learn to do just enough to get by—to become good at ‘school’—or lose interest and drop out.”

One solution, he suggests, comes from findings published by the Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. Learning retention rate corresponds directly to personal engagement. In the process of teaching a concept or skill to others, for instance, a person achieves an impressive 90 percent retention of that knowledge. Through the practice of doing, without the additional task of teaching, the retention rate falls somewhat to 75 percent. And the diminishing return continues from being in a discussion group (50 percent), seeing a demonstration (30 percent), an audio-visual presentation (20 percent), and, toward the bottom, reading (10 percent) and hearing a lecture (5 percent).

A reasonable conclusion from this bit of insight is that hands-on and collaborative “challenge-based” learning encourages the absorption of knowledge and, by extension, encourages critical and creative thinking. The physical manifestation of this, as one can see in the Kellam design, is the arrangement of the flow of spaces to areas that allow students to participate in collective activities where they can readily use the technologies and group interactions with which they are already comfortable to sequentially focus, plan, make, show (i.e., share and teach), and evaluate and reflect on results. An alternative sequence is to allow students to think creatively, collaborate, make, draft/try, and fine-tune.

Physical manifestations

The food garden provides contemplative space and supports the culinary arts program.

To orient spaces most effectively for education, recreation, administration, nourishment, and other school-day activities, the HBA design team grouped particular parts of the school in arrangements based on their function. Challenge-based learning areas extend along an arc on one side of the complex, for instance and in turn connect to all other areas via a general wheel-and-spoke plan, with common space serving as the hub, as well as a dining area.

Classroom furniture allow multiple learning configurations.

The entire school is designed for flexibility. All interior-room partitions are nonstructural; reconfiguration of the school’s interiors at some distant date can be achieved with minimal cost. Redesigned desks (for students and teachers), partitions, presentation boards, and tables provide workspace and storage that can be readily rearranged to form small-, midsize-, and large-group interactive seating. All areas have wireless Internet access; areas for creative, production, presentation, and evaluation tasks are designed specific to those tasks, yet grouped by learning communities.

“The curriculum is being reinvented based on models that are integrated and cross-disciplinary,” Ross says. “The grouping allows real-world-problem solving that uses science, math, language arts, and social studies together, to name just a few disciplines. We took great care to provide both a variety of space sizes and types and a lot of flexibility within these learning communities.

“The plan is set up in such a way that related subjects are all contained within each learning community. As just one example, the culinary arts teaching kitchen is adjacent to the common-space dining area as well as the edible garden, which connects food sourcing, preparation, and serving.”

Engaging the community

Another Compass to 2015 objective is to engage the community, which involves its own balance of priorities, Ross says. “You organize the building and integrate fire walls and security barriers so that you can close off certain parts of the building, make those accessible to community activities, and still maintain security. You also have to consider that there will be separate but simultaneous activities, such as in the gymnasium, auditorium, and common spaces. The way the six learning communities and group-activity areas are individually self-contained with support facilities, the school can be safely, effectively use for many after-hours activities.”

Architecture school is a model

“This has been a learning process for me also,” Ross says. “One of the things that really resonated with me was how many parallels there are between how we were taught in design school and the educational direction VBCPS has set, which would include how to learn—how to define problems and achieve real-world solutions. The more I see those same types of philosophies being applied to the entire curriculum, the more I think of it as “design learning.” Perhaps, especially for architects designing schools, remembering our own educational experience is another tool for imagining schools for the 21st century. As part of the educational process, we are helping to teach students how to be creators instead of just containers for content. They are learning how to take the information they acquire and make new things.”


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