Most boarding schools come with hefty price tags and a student body from the upper echelon. The SEED Foundation set out to change that — and bring the advantages of a rigorous academic environment to underserved students living in urban areas. In 1998, the national non-profit opened its first public boarding school in Washington. And today, SEED operates public boarding schools in Maryland and Florida, with plans underway to open one in coming years in Ohio.
The schools benefit students in many ways — and focus on preparing them for success in and beyond college. As the lead architect on each SEED School project, I want to share some of how the architecture and design elements contribute to the success of the schools, and their ability to push forward the SEED Foundation’s mission and help urban students reach their potential.
Here, I share an excerpt from an article I wrote for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) about the SEED School of Maryland, which opened in 2008 and now serves more than 400 students in grades 6 to 12.
Campus Planning and the Built Environment
Site identification and acquisition are some of the most challenging aspects of establishing a school. They require experience across numerous disciplines: legal, financial, real estate, construction development, and logistics. The challenge becomes even more complex when the acquisition of a site includes residential housing. Identifying an appropriate site, including access to academic, residential, and recreational facilities requires careful planning, research, and analysis. Detailed consideration must be given to the sensitivities of the immediate community, the local business environment, the larger community, local government, and the relevant educational environment. It is somewhat unlikely that any given site in an urban environment will meet the necessary criteria across all factors.
For the SEED School of Maryland, the SEED Foundation was able to secure a long-term lease agreement for Baltimore City’s vacated Southwestern High School and its 52-acre site, which provided a unique opportunity to comprehensively plan the new school. In order to support SEED’s beliefs and goals, the campus plan and buildings were designed around several principles.
- Build a cohesive academic and residential community with centers of activity to promote campus life. The dormitory buildings are organized to articulate a central outdoor green facing the academic building. Main entries to each building are placed on the quad as are the main gathering spaces: the dining hall, library, and the dormitory’s living rooms. An internal central space in the academic building connects three levels of group activities: gymnasium, library, and auditorium. This sky-lit atrium becomes another town center where all the students and faculty can gather day or night.
- Provide security features that are inconspicuous to the student. The entire perimeter of the property is secured with an eight-foot-high fence. However, where visible in open areas, an ornamental fence is used and is pulled in from the edge of the property so it feels like less of a barrier and more like a site feature. In other areas, a more standard chain link type fence is used and located within existing and new landscape plantings.
- Provide student-focused pedestrian connectivity. The individual buildings and the spaces within them are organized by the physical path of the student throughout the day. After designing the SEED School of Washington and studying that campus for six years, students’ daily schedules were clearly understood before a shovel was put in the ground or even pen to paper. This interconnectivity allows students to walk to class, their dormitory and extracurricular activities much in the manner they will experience on a college campus. The interior and exterior spaces are truly used and energized 14, 16, and 18 hours a day.
- Provide spaces to accommodate parent and community involvement. As an integral part of its context and as an important public building where a vital activity occurs, the school is a significant community resource, and the buildings are organized to encourage outside community use without having a negative effect on student activity or the maintenance and operations of the school.
- Create spaces that provide comfortable environments to promote learning. The original Southwestern High School building was designed in 1968 for two thousand students. The building had limited windows and minimal articulated outdoor space. Spaces within the building were re-arranged, and new window openings were added to allow for natural, glare-free light to saturate the building, including circulation spaces such as stairwells and corridors. A sustainable education program was integrated into the dormitories, providing a great way to illustrate energy conservation and foster a broad sense of environmental stewardship in the community.
Though the SEED School of Maryland welcomed its first class of students in 2008, the project’s capital campaign extended over the next five years, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the full campus vision came to fruition. This year, in 2015, the school will graduate and say goodbye to its first class of students, who will use what they’ve learned at SEED to enter college and prepare for successful careers.
To learn more about school architecture, read my previous blog post, “Trends in 21st-Century School Design.”