Perth Amboy High School
The architectural and spatial concepts explored in the design of the high school are all in service of the ideal of personal expression and a celebration of cultural diversity. Just as the high school is a collection of individuals, the buildings are a community of structures, related yet distinct. We were inspired by an alternative perception of the meaning and method of education–one that provides an arena for the students to discover and explore through an amalgam of experience and personal evolution.
Within the social construct of the building, the six academies are highlighted to encourage novel identities. Each academy has a special career-related focus: Business and Industrial Information Technology; Liberal Arts; Civics, Law, and Public Safety; Environmental, Health, and Food Service; and Visual and Performing Arts and Communications; as well as a “school within a school” to nurture the ninth graders just entering the high school.
Programmatically, each academy is composed of four elements, the instructional commons, administration, general purpose and project based classrooms, and a lecture hall. The nucleus of each academy is the Instructional Commons, a glass enclosed multi-story space that serves as a beacon both during the day and at night. The Commons and Lecture Hall float above a light-filled entry atrium that houses the faculty and administration suite, providing a welcome environment for students, teachers and visitors. The specialty classrooms are located on the lower levels of the academy with the general classrooms located above.
The design of the land is integral to the design of the high school. This community of discrete units is woven into the texture of the earth, making multiple uses of the ground, not just as a fixture underfoot, but also as an inhabitable shelter. The natural paths of water define a distinctive route south across the site, uniting the academies and forming a spine of activity for the campus. In concert with the green roofs, and a retention pond at the campus entry, we were able to create a sustainable storm water management system.
The site perimeter is defined by a variety of landscaping, from berm plantings to swales, meadow, and woodlands– creating an understandable interface between community and school. Each of the interstitial spaces between the buildings is differentiated by size, scale, paving materials, textures, and plantings. The variety of environments created provides a rich and textured outdoor experience, a learning and living environment for people, birds and animals.
Single loaded corridors and operable windows provide ample natural ventilation and natural light in the learning spaces and the circulation spaces. In addition, the students always have visual access to the out of doors enhancing one’s sense of connection to the campus and the community. A pattern of transparent, translucent, and solid panels animates the building facades with the south side containing more opaque elements than the north. Deciduous trees are placed to the south of the buildings, providing natural shading from the summer sun.
The totality of the campus design, buildings, and landscape, provide a multitude of places that stimulate thought, engage the students in dialogue, and encourage the development of individuality within the social structure of the community.
The educational vision for this large urban high school crystallized in the course of an intensive planning process that engaged the participation of over one hundred volunteers, including parents, teachers, students, school and civic leaders, and other stakeholders. The Community School Steering Committee was organized as four subcommittees, each focused on issues deemed strategic for the future of the high school.
The INNOVATIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS committee envisioned their ideal school as a nurturing and warm place where teens want to be, and that engages, challenges and arouses their curiosity, spirit and imagination. They recommended that learning spaces (formerly known as classrooms’) should foster the development of new teaching practices such as an emphasis on applied and experiential learning, project-drivien and student directed activities, and interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching styles.
The COMMUNITY LEARNING CENTER committee conducted a survey in English and Spanish of nearly 100 parents, adult students, and faculty to prioritize a list of 12 popular community-oriented features. This design embodies the larger civic purpose of this school to serve a broad range of community needs and learning as a life long process.
The HEALTHY SCHOOL AND LIFE-STYLES committee made an array of recommendations to support good nutrition and healthy activity as part of the total learning environment, and stressed that wherever possible programs in these areas should be integrated with the curriculum. Healthy students are better able to develop and learn, and healthy students, who achieve their educational potential, form healthy communities.
The SPECIAL THEMED ACADEMIES committee studied the pros and cons of small schools and recommended in favor of organizing the large school on a single site (a practical necessity) as a network of small, safe, successful learning communities that share central resources. These academies reflect the diversity of learning styles and educational objectives that characterize the predominantly Hispanic and low income student population, by offering students the opportunity to explore both academic and vocational career pathways in clusters geared to community resources and regional growth industries (they identified seven.)
The Board of Education then authorized the faculty to design the academies. They developed five academies, plus a ninth grade school within a school, to provide a more manageable, student-centered environment for this critical transitional year. A major challenge facing this school is to retain students after ninth grade. The school within a school provides students with a calm environment, familiar surroundings, and a sense of safety and wellbeing. Ninth graders have their own dedicated facilities, including dining, while being exposed to the full range of academic and career paths available in the school.
To create an authentic small learning community, the academies are semi-autonomous, each with its own specialized instructional areas, and dedicated administrative, faculty and program support areas. Each has an instructional commons that serves as a home base for students, a place for the entire learning community to gather, and to support informal learning for individuals and groups.