A look inside the new James Blair Middle School


Walking into the new James Blair Middle School, the first thing you notice is the natural light. From the floor to ceiling windows in the media center to the light green walls of the classrooms, the building is filled with light.

“When you are there during the day there is so much natural light. Honestly, I don’t know if the teachers will even need to turn on lights most of the time,” said Principal Ty Harris. “You walk into some schools and it's like its a dungeon. At Blair, there’s no area of the building that is dark, it’s all light. Even the music rooms you have nice big windows.”

On Wednesday, Williamsburg-James City County School Board members and administrators, as well as city and James City County officials, went on a hard-hat tour of the school, which is scheduled to open this fall.

Harris was hired in June 2017 to get the school up and running. Since then, he has worked with designers and builders to help bring the vision of a collaborative school to life.

A look around

One of the largest and most complete parts of the school is the cafeteria and auditorium. In the front of the cafeteria is James Blair’s main stage, which can also be accessed through the gym. A movable divider will separate the two areas.

To the left of the auditorium are the school’s lunch line and kitchen. While the school will open with about 500 students, designers said they created the kitchen and gym to serve up to 900 students. Planners designed the school so that additions could be build on if needed.

Up on the second floor of the three-story middle school is the media center, the large curved glass you see when driving by the school. While there will be some permanent shelving units along the walls of the library, there also will be movable bookcases. Movable furniture is a common theme throughout the building.

James Blair’s Makerspace — robotic equipment, 3-D printers, 3-D pens and laser cutter — will be in the library. Harris said the lab will be open before, after and during the school day to all students.

“Even if you're in seventh grade or eighth grade and you’re not taking a technology-type class, where you would normally interact with this technology, you are still going to have an opportunity to do that by going to the Makerspace,” Harris said. “Having fun and inventing, that’s what we want to encourage.”

Harris said every sixth grader will take a quarter-long technology class; seventh and eighth-grade students will be able to take a semester-long class. But Harris imagines the robotics and 3-D printing equipment will be used more than just in tech classes.

“I imagine some of our projects being interdisciplinary,” Harris said. “I’ve already had some of my core content teachers, like my history teachers be like, ‘hey, I’d like to use the robots in this way shape or form, can I do that?’ … This is what we want to see happen.”

Finishing touches

Up on the third floor, most of the flooring has been put down and polished and the walls are mostly painted. It's here you can really see the school’s new color scheme in action. While most of the walls are painted white, some are light green.

“It definitely has a beachy feel to it,” Harris said. He said it’ll really come through when the furniture is put in because it was matched to the color schemes by designers.

James Blair will be the first school in the district to be built specifically for collaborative learning. Each floor has a large open space with classrooms on either side. This open area is called the collaboration hub. The hubs will be outfitted with lockers and as moveable furniture. Collapsible glass walls and moveable barriers between most classrooms will allow teachers to adjust the space for their teaching needs in ways not possible in traditional school settings.

School Board member Kyra Cook, Williamsburg, was impressed with the new building.

“Walking into (the building) after seeing it on paper and from the outside driving by so many times, it’s exactly what I anticipated, what I envisioned it would be,” Cook said. “That was my initial reaction, ‘wow this looks familiar to me.’ ”

Harris said all of the teachers who will work at James Blair in the fall have toured the building. He has allowed each of them to choose where they want their classroom. If a teacher asks for an unorthodox location, they’ll talk about it.

“I’ve had teachers come to me, like social studies, and they've been like, ‘I’d really like to have a humanities experience for my kids. I’ve talked with another English teacher that I befriended on the tour, can we be side by side?’ ” Harris said. “We’ll have the same curriculum, but we are going to be doing a lot more of the project-based piece of it and the interdisciplinary piece, and that’s kind of the expectation from my standpoint, that teachers are being really creative with how they can bring instruction and their content to life.”

Rather than hallways, classrooms are set up along “collaboration hubs,” where teachers can expand their lessons. While the walls facing the collaboration hubs will be glass, between classrooms there will be collapsable walls, covered in a whiteboard-like material students and teachers can write on with dry-erase marker.

The only concern city councilman Benny Zhang said he possibly had about the school’s layout was the foldable glass walls. He thought students might be distracted by people being able to look in and out of the classrooms, but Harris already had a solution: There will be an opaque film on the window walls. They will go as high as eye level and prevent people from seeing what exactly was going on in a classroom.

“It's not like it's in a hallway, where it’s a classroom and a hallway where people are constantly walking by,” Harris said. He added people in the collaboration hub aren’t walking around, but rather sitting there working. “I think it's going to be a little less of an issue than people think.”

While not shown on the tour, James Blair will have an art room and music rooms. Harris described the art room as “probably the nicest room in the building.” With plenty of natural light and a kiln, it will be the perfect place for students to find their muse.

“I do envision our visual (and) performing arts being a major cog in what we do as far as interdisciplinary,” Harris said. “Regardless of the subject — math, science, English — the visual component is something that is interesting for a lot of kids.”

Outside the school’s walls, construction workers are making headway on other features of the new school. From the windows on one side of the third floor the beginnings of a baseball field are visible. While it may not have grass yet, the outline of the diamond and the poles that will one day hold up a scoreboard are clearly visible.


One concern with having an open, collaborative building plan for James Blair has been safety. Many parents have shared their concerns about glass walls and possible intruders being able to easily look through them.

“Safety is our number one priority,” Harris said.

James Blair’s first line of defense will be its front entrance. After walking through the main entrance, visitors will be forced to walk through the main office to get to the rest of the building. Harris said guarantee anyone who goes into the school is authorized.

“Not all other schools have this. Some schools you can walk through the front door and go right by the office,” Harris said.

If an intruder somehow manages to gain access to the building through another entrance, Harris said the school is built with lockable double doors that will block off the collaboration hubs and classrooms from any possible intruders.

“While you can’t say you’re going to be able to prevent everything, the doors are important,” Harris said. “When those doors lock you can’t get to the classroom wing.”

When it comes to conducting lockdown drills, Harris said the glass dividers cover just 75 percent of a classroom space and there will be space in the room where students can gather that won’t be visible to someone trying to look inside the room.

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can … to keep our students and our staff safe,” Harris said.

Looking ahead

Harris said most of the remaining construction is cosmetic; the heavy lifting is done. He said the biggest task will be when the mobile furniture arrives in August and making sure everything is where it needs to be.

“It's nice to see what we’ve been told about for two years actually come to fruition,” Cook said. “I look forward to seeing it fully completed and finished with students in it because that’s what makes a school a school — the students and staff.”

See it for yourself

Harris said W-JCC school officials are tentatively planning to hold an open house for the community from 5-7 p.m. Aug. 27. Details are still being settled.

Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.

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