In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. - Ben Okri, The Famished Road
Context. Poquoson is located adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay on the eastern tip of Virginia’s lower Peninsula. Bounded by major water features on three of four sides, it has 84 miles of shoreline and 5,089 acres of wetlands including the Plum Tree Island National Wildlife Refuge. Despite this, public access to these natural wonders is limited. The city also lacks a civic center. The new elementary school will create a civic center and provide public access to the water.
The school will be located on a 22-acre site at the edge of a tidal wetland flowing to Bennet Creek and the Chesapeake Bay beyond. “Transitions” and “the natural environment” were identified by teachers as guiding themes for the project. These were particularly appropriate considering that Poquoson, which is Algonquian for “swamp on a hill,” is itself a transition in the natural environment.
Community center. The new school will be located on the main street, Poquoson Avenue, at the city’s midpoint. Accordingly, the site was conceived as a public park with recreational fields and access to Bennet Creek via nature paths and a boardwalk. The boardwalk is on axis with a sidewalk connecting to Poquoson Avenue. Symbolically, this line transitions from terrestrial to aquatic, local to global, man to nature. As the line passes through the school it divides public and private spaces. This clear demarcation allows the gymnasium, cafeteria and library to remain open to the public independent of the private classrooms.
Safe and secure. The administrative suite commands a view of the entrance, main lobby and all three public spaces. It serves as a sentry, and anyone entering the classroom wing must pass by it.
Enhancing teaching and learning. The 3-5 elementary school will house 675 students. Three two-story grade-level houses each contain ten classrooms and support spaces organized around double-height, large-group gathering areas. L-shaped classrooms are designed to foster multiple learning styles by providing space for individual study and small-group instruction without compromising the traditional lecture setting. The large-group gathering areas provide space for two or more classes to gather and “lifeboat” balconies on the second floor allow ten to twelve students to gather with their teachers in more casual settings.
The learning environment extends beyond the building. Each house opens onto an outdoor classroom with playgrounds and the educational landscape beyond. The boardwalk extending from the school leads to a wetland lab in the midst of the constructed wetlands.
The school is designed to facilitate an understanding of Poquoson and its relationship to the world beyond. The building models the water cycle and students are analogous to droplets. Each of the grade-level houses denotes a particular type of wetland (estuary, tidal flat, scrub shrub) with examples of representative flora and fauna depicted in each. The nature paths and boardwalk contain educational signage describing the ecosystem in which they are set.
Healthy. Educational best practices and sustainable technologies intersect to provide an optimal environment for learning. Natural light is carefully harvested to control glare and heat gain. Non-toxic, low VOC materials are specified to promote better indoor air quality. Operable windows provide fresh air and offer spectacular views of the wetlands and Bay beyond. The building models good stewardship and will save water and energy by harvesting water and utilizing a ground-source heating and cooling. The project is LEED registered and pursuing Gold certification.
Construction has begun and the school will open in the summer of 2008.
Director of Elementary Programs
Mission. The mission of the Poquoson City Schools is to empower all students to develop their full potential, to lead lives of meaning and purpose, and to become contributing members of their every-changing local and global communities through a sustained commitment of education in a respectful, safe, and caring environment.
“The real discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” - Marcel Proust
Paradigm Shift. Our planning team was comprised of parents, community members, school administrators, and teachers with expertise in the arts, exceptional children, and students who have been identified as having cognitive and/or physical disabilities. The architects began by challenging us to forget everything we knew about school design. We were asked brainstorm, envision best practices of instruction and seek out our surroundings for a recurring theme that would set the tone for learning and engage the community and inspire young minds in this wonderful learning environment.
Student Centered Learning. Our team did not tour other schools, but chose instead to explore the essence of multiple intelligence theory as it is embodied in other places including the Virginia Living Museum and the Philip Merrill Environmental Center. Our tours inspired many ideas that we articulated through the creation of a photo essay and blog. The excitement that was created from our ‘fieldtrip’ took each of us back to our first day of teaching and all the promise, hope and inspiration that we felt on that day. The wave that came over us reminded us of the feeling we want our students to have as they enter their grade houses, outdoor classrooms, the boardwalk, breakout rooms and other learning areas; to formulate questions and engage in reality-based, hands-on activities that bring about ah-ha moments that bridge their real world experiences and those of others in the world around them.
The Ripple Effect. Two themes emerged from illustrations sent in from students at the current elementary school, staff and community members that shared their thoughts on the blog as well as brainstorming from the planning team: “Transitions” and “the Natural Environment.” The architects used these themes as inspiration to create a truly unique learning environment for a truly unique community.
In Poquoson where the wetlands, watermen and fishing community hold together this close-knit community, all stakeholders have actively supported the public educational system. When Hurricane Isabelle demolished portions of the community and flooded the current school, the town came together to rebuild and decided that it was time to create a new learning environment that would prepare their children for a global society while capturing the essence of the communities livelihood, respect for the environment and opportunities for rich learning through and with the natural habitat around them.
It is with these thoughts in mind that we eagerly await the completion of our new learning environment.