Feather River Academy
Connecting School and Community Through Design
As a school for at-risk youth, it was important the students felt connected to their school in order to facilitate a comfortable atmosphere for learning. We began the planning process by involving students from the school in interactive workshops that employed toy-like ‘building blocks’ representing programmatic components and site amenities. Using these blocks we explored ideas about scale, adjacencies, interior and exterior, and master planning. The students stated they didn’t want ‘old school’, which was described as a red brick building with little windows and white trim. They wanted their new school to express contemporary times. One student, Juan, stood out during the process. He displayed a facile understanding of space, scale, and programmatic relationships, and although he had no formal design training, he worked hands-on in the development phase, and his ideas helped guide our final design. While the student participation was critical to the project’s success, few of the students were still in attendance when it opened. Therefore, we learned the value of including a greater number of younger students in the process as well.
Through further development of the students’ ideas, the classroom buildings were designed to include classrooms paired around shared resource areas allowing for team teaching and expanded learning space. Within each classroom is a carpeted lecture area with marker boards and projection screens, as well as a ‘messy’ area for science and art projects with polished concrete floors and a sectional overhead door so that activities can expand outdoors. This layout provides flexibility, but was at first underutilized as it was a departure from the traditional classroom layout to which the teachers were accustomed. The lesson we take is that teachers and students, involved in the development of the design, are the best people to convey its potential. An ‘orientation’ given by those involved in the planning process teaches everyone about the flexibility of the different spaces.
This school is also unique in its strong connection to the community, which is invited in through the shared use of the Multipurpose Building, stage and amphitheater, cyber classroom, and surrounding plazas. The school is zoned to have a secured perimeter around classrooms and portions of the administration, while leaving recreational fields and plazas open to the community. The building designed for a street corner, and most accessible by the school’s neighbors, can change function depending on evolving partnerships: educational, retail, commercial, or community space. Since the project’s completion, the positive community response has been greater than anticipated. The school is continually utilized for everything from conferences to high school proms. The proximity of the school to the county office easily allows for development of new partnerships. This overwhelmingly positive response teaches us not only that the school is a valuable resource for the community, but that the community is also a valuable resource for the school. Earlier identification of these partnerships and resources can help us to incorporate more elements of communal benefit into the design, as well as introduce students to the opportunities available to them in their own neighborhood.
A Learning Environment for All
The Sutter County Superintendent of Schools Office serves students in county-wide programs for special education and at-risk youth in grades 7-12 which are mostly run on existing school sites throughout this rural region. The county office had not built a school in over 30 years. The opportunity to build a new Community school for expelled and at-risk youth was a “golden opportunity” to design an environment that would hopefully encourage and foster the students’ return to high school and completion of a diploma.
Because students, staff, and community were part of a comprehensive education specification planning process, the school has met or exceeded the educational, community, and environmental needs of Sutter County. The school has been open for nearly one year and is nearing student capacity. The flexibility of design and room layout will allow for an additional 25% growth. Students learn and work in an atmosphere that models a college campus.
Because of its location next to the county office of education, the facility is constantly used for community events, regional trainings, and statewide forums and conferences. Several community performances have been held in the school’s multipurpose room and it provides a much needed venue for theater space and meeting rooms. In addition, the school has just completed an agreement with Chico State University and the county office, to develop a “satellite” campus at [the school]. This has been well received by public policy makers and reflects a major component in the community master plan.
Not only does the school provide a functional environment, but care has also been taken to include the outdoor environment, agriculture, the beauty of the Sutter Buttes, and American Bird Flyway as a focus of its design. Classrooms have opening glass walls that allow natural heating/cooling and light to flood learning spaces. Walkways include stamped designs, which serve as learning opportunities for teachers to use with students. Students, staff, and community members often comment on the beauty, functionality, and aesthetic harmony the campus brings to our region.
Green design concepts have also been incorporated within the campus and are part of the learning environment designed for the youth.
[The school] is truly a learning environment for all!