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Lit From Within: Heritage High Goes Back to School
Sunlight streams through the upper windows, flooding the central hallway. Appropriately dubbed “Main Street,” this corridor is the primary lifeline of the newly opened Heritage High School (HHS). It’s grand, expansive, and, most importantly, brand new.
“It looks new; it feels new; it smells new, and it sounds new,” Head Principal Tim Beatty said. “Because of the layout of the building and the technology that our students will be exposed to, the new building should be a game changer for our staff and school community.”
So, how much of a “game changer” can one building be, you may ask? That all depends on how the building came to be and why.
A HISTORY OF LIMITATIONS
“Poor lighting, leaking after rain storms, freezing or suffocating temperatures, narrow hallways, five [congested] floors—” these are “just a few” of the problems that plagued their old building according to Michele Wisskirchen, an alumna and now HHS teacher.
As teachers, “we worry about our students not being safe, not having the access to technology, or not being comfortable as they learn,” Wisskirchen explains. “It’s hard for them to take an SOL test with sweat pouring down their faces.”
“Limited” is how teacher and alumni Alex Drumheller describes education in the old building.
In fact, at Drumheller’s HHS graduation ceremony in 1987 the temperature was higher than 90 degrees when a storm broke and led to rain water pouring through the gymnasium roof.
Ben Copeland summarizes it this way: “This building is new, warm, inviting and bright versus what was old, dark, dingy and leaky.” As the Assistant Superintendent of Operations and Administration for Lynchburg City Schools, Copeland has been leading this project since August 2012.
To arrive at this fresh start, Herculean efforts were required. Input was gathered from “teachers, parents, students, community [members], City Council and the School Board,” Wisskirchen recalls. All of these people were “gathering together, throwing out ideas of what we wanted and needed on endless sticky notes.” Those ideas were distilled to trends then themes and—finally—a design.
Standing in the new building today, Copeland says, “It’s been my major project, and I’m thrilled. I think it could change the student culture.”
Perhaps, even be a game changer.
A CLEAN SLATE
Upon entering “Main Street,” you see soaring, open ceilings, wide walkways, and light, lots of natural light. In fact, “natural” describes the aesthetics all around. Brick, natural wood and burnished concrete floors compose the majority of spaces, creating a warm space more reminiscent of an attractive college campus than a traditional high school. But, after walking a bit, you start to notice the total absence of lockers.
Instead of lining the hallways, lockers are housed in four bays strategically placed around the building. Designed to prevent hallway congestion, they allow students to stop at their lockers without interrupting the flow of foot traffic because they’re anchored at three-way intersections with hallways leading off of them. The bays are also adjacent to staircases and entrances feeding in from the bus drop off zone.
The search for natural light—a priority for everyone—led to this unique building layout according to Copeland. Gone is the double-loaded corridor with classrooms on each side—a design of the past. This building is like “a big academic horseshoe with the main street hallway, an interior courtyard…support spaces in the middles of the hallways, [and] all the classrooms on the outside [where] we’ve got the courtyard in the middle, which allows you to get light to the interior classrooms.”
“Natural light’s proven to help education,” Copeland adds. “It helps learning, so we got as much light into the building as we can.”
When planning began, Copeland says ideas were simply crystallizing; they were asking The Big Questions, starting from the ground up. They needed to know: “What’s it need to look like? Is it going to be a two-story building? What departments need to be next to each other?”
These questions helped to identify “clusters” he says, which became building blocks for the structure and kicked off the process of preliminary design drafts, feedback, revision, more drafts, and so on. Purposeful attention to layout enhances student learning, teacher collaboration and overall efficiency.
Consider the “circulation in the building—the flow,” Copeland says. “You walk down hallways in this building, and every hallway brings you back to somewhere. There’s only one, true dead-end hallway. In the academic wing, if you turn consecutive lefts, you’ll come back to where you started.”
Nothing was done by accident; Copeland was very intentional about gleaning input for each space and function of the school. And it shows.
ENHANCED STUDENT EXPERIENCE
Here’s where things get particularly detailed, and the idea of a “game changer” seems especially apt. Inside each of these bright, window-flanked classrooms, you find an environment primed for learning: visibility is optimized; distraction is minimized. Beatty’s assertion that student engagement will look differently isn’t an exaggeration. Any teacher will tell you that distractions are the enemy of student engagement. A student neglecting to charge their Chromebook (a standard issue item for every HHS student) could lead to the loss of valuable time. However, with the addition of multiple, retractable power cords hanging from the ceilings and the inclusion of numerous wall outlets, Chromebooks can stay continuously powered. And with the implementation of desk clusters and the addition of three TV monitors in every classroom, Copeland says that from “whatever orientation you’re facing” in a classroom—you can see a screen.
Since the old building “wasn’t adequate for modern education [and] didn’t lend itself to education in the last 10 years,” as Copeland says, there had to be what Beatty calls a “mindset shift.”
And part of that mindset shift will be an ongoing challenge for teachers, albeit one they welcome with open arms.
Wisskirchen is in a collaboration room, meaning it has “five different team project-based workstations all linked together via technology, so students can work together in groups,” Copeland says, and then teachers can easily project information onto all of the work station screens at once.
“I have lots of new technology to learn,” Wisskirchen says. “But learning is an opportunity for growth, and new technology will help our students engage in instruction and will help teachers differentiate their instruction for all types of learners.”
Intentional teacher input also influenced particular departments—those “clusters” Copeland mentioned. Drumheller says, “The arrangement of the rooms will. . .provide optimal use of technology and collaboration between students and teacher” because prep rooms are placed between larger classroom labs. . .[and we have] updated lab equipment, [which] will allow us to impact the education of our students in a profound way [because] we have been limited” in the past. He adds, “Being an Environmental Science teacher, it was quite funny not to be able to see outside.” Of course, like many other classrooms, Drumheller’s now faces out to the courtyard from up on the second story.
Lead art teacher Jon Roark is also excited about the windows and a direct doorway to the courtyard from his classroom.
Roark—whose collaborative work with students is visible all throughout the region from projects with the Academy Center of the Arts to published books—finally has facilities that match the talent he cultivates. The art suite is truly top of the line, equipped with 20 MacBooks, a pottery room with wheels and a large kiln, student work centers, ample storage, and, plenty of natural light.
“Now, we have the option to grow the program,” Copeland says.
FOCUS ON COMMUNITY
By Copeland’s estimation, and many others’, this new building will also finally reflect the community aspect and aspirations of the students who attend.
“My favorite memories are the interactions between teachers and students,” Wisskirchen says. “The school embraces the diversity of its students, and I always felt I was a part of something. . .It is a family atmosphere, and students are accepted for who they are.”
Appropriately, certain elements in the design emphasize this concept of community: the spacious courtyard; the cavernous gymnasium with basketball courts Beatty describes as “beautiful”; the keeping of the indoor track, which has long been Heritage’s claim to fame; the two-story media center with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and ample seating for group or individual study.
Teachers will also benefit from improved opportunities for collaboration inside their five teacher work centers, all of which have conference tables, small kitchenette areas and flexible seating options.
Wisskirchen is looking forward to “seeing [students] congregate in the commons area, and for the community to see an example of what we can accomplish together.”
Now, at the end of this four-year project, Copeland says this is his favorite part, to see it all completed.
“To be given something like this, as much thought and effort went into it—students can now work to their highest level.”
By Jennifer Redmond | Photos by LaSHONDA Delivuk