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Rebuilding our schools rejuvenates our communities

 There are more than 6,284 public and private school buildings across New York State, all proudly serving and supporting the state’s 2.6 million K-12 students and their school staffs, parents and communities.

Nicholas Signorelli

Nicholas Signorelli

But no amount of pride can slow the inevitable strains of aging. Education officials report that the average public-school facility is more than 50 years old and needs modernization and critical repairs; demands that New York’s 700 school districts are meeting by constructing new facilities and adopting fresh approaches such as the adaptive reuse of existing buildings via $26.4 billion in annual school aid from the state.

With this surge of activity, many school districts are seeking smart and sustainable ways to plan, adapt, build, and renovate existing infrastructure but also preserve and improve their school’s surrounding neighborhoods.

This week, thousands of school leaders are convening in Rochester for the 100th annual convention of the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) and an important agenda item for attendees will be learning about smart and sustainable ways to plan, adapt, renovate, and build modern classrooms while also preserving and hopefully improving their surrounding neighborhoods.

At Ashley McGraw Architects, we believe this offers an opportunity to involve all school stakeholders early, and collaboratively, in the creative process. We advocate that all school design and construction should have a wide consensus supporting the project’s goals and a common denominator of restoring the community’s vitality.

In the past several years, we’ve worked on K-12 school projects in Groton, Harpursville, Binghamton, and Liverpool. In every instance, our initial discussions with citizens and school leaders focused on identifying and honoring each school’s historic identity while also pitching a daring, green architecture philosophy that seeks to minimize any potential harmful effects of the construction projects on human health and the environment.

Our most recent example is the partnership we facilitated with the Groton Central School District in Tompkins County on a $4.8 million capital project. The district stakeholders’ vision was to remake a dingy, 8,000-square-foot former high school basement space into a high-tech science, technology and math lab. Our common goal was to improve Groton students’ sagging attendance and academic performance.

The resulting Groton STEAM Learning Center has been transformative for the district’s students and staff but also enticing to the region’s citizens, local businesses and colleges.

The multipurpose space—complete with a photo, video, and music-editing studio—will be used for a variety of educational programs that are industry-aligned, including: building trades, computer science, engineering & electronics, agriculture technology, and communications & media arts.

A former dreary lower level is now a colorful, sun-lit, biophilia-influenced lounge fitted with high-tech accoutrements of learning: enhanced video screens, work stations, adaptable furniture, and state-of-the-art, energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems.

Nearly every surface is a writing surface, including the glass walls that surround the space, to encourage spontaneous creativity and ideation. The STEAM Learning Center’s floor plan features transparent and flexible spaces of varying sizes. This mirrors the design of contemporary higher-education and corporate office environments which encourage independent work as well as spontaneous collaboration, skills that students need to develop to be successful in the 21st century.

At the STEAM Learning Center’s open house this past spring, local residents and business owners were intrigued by the potential educational opportunities offered for the students and the community at large. Subsequently, beginning in fall 2020, the school district will start evening classes for adult learning. Business groups are proposing internship training and local colleges are offering instructors to help prepare the students for university-level learning.

We witnessed another example of how school design collaboration leads to vitality in our state’s Southern Tier. When Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused the Susquehanna River to flood Binghamton, the MacArthur Elementary School was inundated with contaminated flood waters and declared a total loss.

The school was the heart of a vibrant city neighborhood and served an ethnically, socio-economically and racially diverse student population. The project’s goals were to redefine what the school could be and restore and revitalize the surrounding neighborhood.

With the help of federal and state funding, the Binghamton City School District stakeholders—a collaborative group of school board members, administration, neighbors, students, parents, and staff—had the opportunity to rethink and create a vision for a new school for the 21st century.

The result was a new 128,000-square-foot high-performance elementary school that embodied new models of educational engagement of how students learn. State-of-the-art climate control, ventilation and lighting  systems, materials and site development (including raising the classroom wings 12 feet above the ground on columns to allow the river to flood and recede naturally over time) recently was awarded LEED Platinum certification.

At this week’s NYSSBA conference, we intend to share these success stories and others to inspire and educate school officials on how sustainable architecture and design can not only rebuild our state’s K-12 school stock but also help their surrounding communities thrive—now and into the future.

Nicholas Signorelli is a principal at Ashley McGraw Architects based in Syracuse.  He is a regular speaker at state education and architecture conferences and a regular contributor on design trends in national publications.

One comment

  1. Schools play a very important role in our society. It is a cradle for young and raw minds. So these precious places must be cared for and looked after. But it is sad to know the state about the public schools in pitiful conditions. Thankfully, the authorities are slowly giving attention to these schools.


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