When education facility planner Michael Hall talked to Williamsburg-James City County school board members about the concepts for the district's fourth middle school, he cautioned them that it would be nothing like the schools they learned in.
"We're going to create a premier middle school — a transparent and flexible learning space," Hall told board members at their August meeting. His visit this month was the first update on the fourth middle school project the board received since April. "We're looking at using learning spaces, moving furniture, glass walls, multi-use labs and spaces that as the curriculum changes, so can the space."
School division Superintendent Steven M. Constantino told board members he was excited to be at a stage to discuss concepts for sometimes controversial fourth middle school project, with city and county officials' lukewarm reception to it and questions on whether it was needed as well as a short-lived battle over where it would be located, settled with the decision to use the James Blair site.
It still faces a $2.2 million funding shortfall in the capital improvement budget approved earlier this summer by school board members.
The new middle school would join the district's three others — Toano, Berkeley and Lois S. Hornsby – and be built at the James Blair building which houses the district's Central Offices.
Phase one for building the middle school calls for a $29.6 million renovation of the James Blair location, with the central offices sharing the property with a middle school for 600 students, slated to open in the 2018 school year.
To keep up with projected school enrollment numbers, the school would be expanded one to two years later to hold 900 students. That expansion could cost between $21 million and $29 million more, according to 2014 estimates provided by the school's architects.
Constantino gave board members an idea of what the new middle school would be like, explaining he'd seen the concepts in action at an Arizona middle school built four years ago, and still in use.
"We need to create spaces that can be used now, and 20 years from now," Constantio said. "This represents the first conceptual conversation we'll have. These are not the floor plans for the building, they are conceptual designs."
Hall agreed, saying, "We're still moving toward a final design. Until we get what fits your district, we're listening and trying to respond to your requests for the building."
The education facility designer, who has helped design schools for more than 40 years said the new middle school would be pre-wired for new technology, and set up with space to accommodate the technology to come. Classrooms would become learning spaces with flexible furniture and node chairs that students can adjust for height and comfort, as well as roll around. Some node chairs come equipped with round, flat baskets to store students' books and other materials.
Architects are looking to create several learning pods, or areas that can be broken into smaller spaces for student collaboration on school work and projects.
At full capacity, pods can hold up to 150 students and would be self-contained with bathrooms, multi-use science labs, media centers, see-through and glass walls with as much natural lighting as possible, Hall said. The design would flow from the outside in, creating a new type of campus.
"Our goal is that learning starts the minute someone steps on the site. It's a holistic approach to a campus," Hall said.
Technology and sciences would be the focus of the new middle school, which is training a group of digital natives, children who have grown up with and been surrounded by technology. Collaboration and learning by working on solving problems together is the reasoning behind having large, open pods and furniture that can easily be re-configured for group work, Constantino said.
"We want to create a space that encourages collaboration between students, and gives us the ability to personalize learning and be able to change things on the fly if a lesson plan isn't working," the district's superintendent said.
The new school would continue to use S.T.E.M. learning or the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics focus used in other Williamsburg and Jame City County schools. STEM schools help students think critically, solve complex problems and make advancements in science and technology.
School board members had few questions on the concepts other than those about making sure staff would be prepared and trained for a new type of learning environment where students work together on projects and spend less time in lectures.
Board president Jim Kelly praised the idea to use natural lighting and flexible education options.
"I think it's very important for the students and to make them comfortable in the school. I appreciate (natural lighting) aspect of it. It's interesting," Kelly said. "It's not a school house like one we're used to, or like my generation saw."
The superintendent said making an environment where students are excited about learning is their ultimate goal.
"If we can do things to make them happy, and make students want to come to school, I don't think we can do anything better," Constantino said.
Reach Michele Canty at (757) 345-2341.
Short timeline for fourth middle school
Aug. 2015 — School board has first discussion of concepts for fourth middle school.
April 2015 — At their regular Meeting, the Williamsburg/James City County school board selectedWaller Todd Sadler as the architectural firm to work on the design.
2014 — At their Oct. 21, 2014, Regular Meeting, the WJCC School Board voted 6-1 to accept School division Superintendent Steven M. Constantino's recommendation to build a two-phase fourth middle school on the James Blair property.
2013 — A middle school committee was formed in January 2013 and charged by the School Board to: research, determine and advise on the future learning needs of middle school students; review and confirm middle school student enrollment projections and capacity needs. The committee recommended building a new school on the James Blair site or redesigning and expanding the present James Blair Middle School building.