While formerly staid office environments are beginning to look more like schoolyards, some schools are beginning to resemble high-tech headquarters. In Alexandria, Minnesota (about 130 miles northwest of Minneapolis) a new high school designed by Cuningham Group Architecture and JLG Architects would not feel out of place on a Silicon Valley campus.
An expansive, three-story atrium collects daylight and ties together Alexandria Area High School’s “learning neighborhoods.” Flexible furniture upends the typical beehive-like order of the classrooms. Students flock to maple-clad “learning stairs” and other “pop-up spaces,” which are more common in startup offices than in public high schools.
“We all kind of want the same thing,” said John Pfluger, design principal at Cuningham Group, “this kind of mash-up between a Starbucks and an Apple store.”
That approach first emerged in 2010, Pfluger said, when school district officials held public meetings and asked community members what they wanted. Two years prior, voters rejected a tax increase to fund the school district, so the new $73.24 million school—funded through private donations and $65 million in bonds—represents a substantial investment in a new direction.
About 1,400 students just completed their first academic year in the 280,000-square-foot school, which is expected to be certified LEED Silver. The designers included a chilled beam system to cut energy costs associated with heating and cooling. They also expanded an existing wetland onsite to manage storm water and irrigate athletic fields.
Inside, students from grades nine to 12 circulate through a central “Community Commons,” which combines the building’s cafeteria, gym, and other social spaces into an airy, three-story volume that serves as the heart of the school. Nearby, a 1,000-seat theater—designed by Schuler Shook in collaboration with several community arts groups—hosts school and community functions.
“It’s [Community Commons] where kids hang out before and after school. It’s a community gathering spot,” said Pfluger. But, he added, the school does not eschew organization for open-plan dogma: “I think there’s an impression that there are no enclosed spaces, but there is a huge variety of spaces.”
Four “academies” across two three-level academic wings house the majority of the classroom space, although Pfluger said they do not use the term classroom. Instead of rooms owned by individual faculty members or subject areas, teachers are given a variety of spaces to choose from, including everything from standard, blackboard-oriented rooms to a wide-open “learning stair” or amphitheater-style space.
The curriculum, too, bends a bit from traditional public school pedagogy, elevating vocational-technical education to an essential part of Alexandria students’ high school experience. At the heart of both the design and programming, said Pfluger, is the same goal: updating the definition of what a high school should look like for the 21st century.