Reflections on Modernizing and Expanding a Historic School

Posted on: July 12th, 2010 by Guest Writer

DC's School Without Walls (Photo: Joseph Romeo)

Written by Sean O’Donnell

Now that summer has arrived in earnest, Washington, DC’s School Without Walls Senior High School (“Walls”) has become unusually quiet. This 440-student public school just enjoyed its first year back at its newly-modernized and expanded campus, giving me a chance to reflect on how well this learning community has settled back into its home.

The renewed facilities – a combination of a 19th century school house and a 21st century addition – have had a dramatic impact on learning. Test scores and applications to enroll in the school have both risen dramatically. The fourteen juniors who enrolled in the first full year of the Early College Program are taking dual credit courses at the neighboring George Washington University toward an associate’s degree.

In a roundtable conducted by the American Architectural Foundation, teachers remarked that the building greatly enhanced communication among the faculty. New distance learning technologies have further enhanced collaboration with students attending schools in Ghana and Nigeria, and the facilities have enhanced the sense of pride among the Walls community.

Senior Malika Morris expressed this newfound sense of pride in The GW Hatchet by saying: “I remember freshman year when people would ask me what school I went to… and they’d say ‘What school is that?’ But now I say ‘I go the School Without Walls’ and they’re like ‘Oh, the new school in GW.’ And that’s my school! So it feels good.”

Sadly, the school existed for nearly 40 years in a building that endured a long history of deferred maintenance and functional obsolescence. The three-story, twelve-classroom design of the 1882 Grant School Building – now occupied by Walls – was based on then-Superintendent of Schools J. Ormond Wilson’s research into European and American school design.

Although begun as a model 19th century schoolhouse, the building was considered outdated by the 1940s because it lacked any assembly space. During a visit to the school, Eleanor Roosevelt decried the building’s poor condition. Various ad hoc modifications occurred over the following decades, but by 2000, the building was in terrible disrepair. Its condition was best illustrated by a student video that, while at times humorous, showed the deplorable condition of their learning environment: extensive water damage, falling plaster, lack of power, crumbling window sashes, general inaccessibility, and lack of space.

While the students spent the last year taking advantage of the resources of their modernized campus, this renovation and expansion project received a number of prestigious awards, including Learning by Design’s 2010 Grand Prize for Excellence in Educational Facility Design and the 2010 AIA Committee on Architecture for Education Educational Facility Design Awards Program Citation. Just a week ago, the school building became certified by the United States Green Building Council as LEED for Schools Gold. For me, the success of Walls – educationally and architecturally – proves a larger point: Historic buildings can thrive as 21st century schools.

Walls provides tangible evidence that if you can look past the daily experience of the current problems beleaguering many of our older school buildings and truly assess their potential, many are capable of meeting contemporary educational needs with the proper investment. And when considered within a broader context of educational and societal goals, they may even exceed the performance of a new “green field” school.

Click here for more information on Walls and the process that enabled several other older schools to adapt to contemporary needs.

Sean O’Donnell, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal with Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects.

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