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Rethinking School Design.

William Skilling's unblurred vision of a school and curriculum that meld technology and the arts has led to the revolutionary design of Byron Center High School -- a virtual factory of employable youth navigating their way into tomorrow's workforce.

Wading through unfamiliar waters, Principal William Skilling began an eight-year-long journey to educate himself, the school district, its faculty, and the community about a curriculum that would teach students employable skills that future job markets will require -- and the building that would make it all possible.

During the course of Skilling's research, he found some shocking discoveries. A University of Michigan corporate management success study revealed that one of the common denominators of today's successful leaders was a strong background in the arts. After attending technology seminars (where you'd hardly expect to see a school administrator), Skilling composed an extensive list of requirements for the new high school in Byron Center, a community 10 miles south of Grand Rapids, MI. At the top of the list was greater use of technology and the capabilities for an expanded arts curriculum. The project team (the architecture and engineering firm, Tower Pinkster Titus, and construction company, Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., both based out of Grand Rapids, MI), under Skilling's guidance, began mapping out the design and construction process.

Setting the course

What Skilling visualized for the school's new facility was similar to a common shopping center design. With the building's athletic facility in the west end and the arts center located on the east end, the two disciplines act similar to large stores, which serve as anchors in- a mall. This allows both areas to be occupied simultaneously and provides direct access to events, while prohibiting entry to the central portion of the school. The building's core curriculum is located between these wings and contains the media center, classrooms, learning and computer labs, and administrative offices, which function as the nucleus of the facility.

As part of Skilling's quest for information, he began piecing together a document of technology specifications for the school When' the bond passed, Skilling presented Tower Pinkster Titus with a 40-page compilation of the results of his research -- a bid specification for an information system that did not exist. When asked if the technology specifications affected the building's design, Thomas R, Mathison, AIA, principal in charge of the project, Tower Pinkster Titus; recalls, "It was not as large of a factor as we thought it was going to be. However, as we fine-tuned the design, we did make some adjustments in order to accommodate the extent of technology, because it was more than we would normally seem a high school."

The journey be begins

The thoughtful planning by the school's project team enabled the Classroom Resource Management System (CRMS) to transform every classroom into a virtual library of resources and information on a global scale. "I think that Byron Center has set the benchmark for how to use informational technology to improve teaching and learning. We have put in every classroom the ability to access any information, anywhere, anytime -- without the assistance of another person to make it happen," says Skilling.

The CRMS system provides each classroom with a wealth of resources including:

* Distance-learning (interactive television) capabilities.

* High-speed Internet access.

* VCR access.

* Intra-classroom conferencing.

* Classroom telephone conferencing.

* Atomic time.

* Scanners.

* Three cameras (one for students, one for instructor, and one document camera).

* Touch screen control.

* Grading and attendance software.

* Integrated Learning System (ILS) access.

* Office 98[TM] Professional software including PowerPoint.

* Access to three remotely controlled satellite systems.

* One weather satellite system.

According to Owen-Ames-Kimball (OAK) Co., "More than 70 miles of video, audio, data, and voice cabling were used to operate the school's breakthrough technology."

"The technology allows them to use any room anyway they want," explains Mathison. Ingenious design ideas and innovative products combine to ensure maximum felxibility. Two classrooms are easily transformed into one, large instructional space when a dividing mobile wall is moved.

Skilling was concerned with increasing the versatility of the 30 classrooms while maintaining noise levels appropriate for a learning environment. "The actual acoustic properties of that moveable wall are equivalent to a block wall - the acoustic are the same as far as noise transfer," he explains.

Learning labs are designed as a room-within-a-room. The innermost room is framed with glass window walls, enabling large group instruction to occur, while individual or small group interaction takes place, along the room's primeter. These labs can accommodate up to 60 students, all under the supervision of one instructor.

Full speed ahead

When Skilling began his research, there were only 19 students in the combined middle school and high school choir and only 23 young adults enrolled in marching band. When the school district's administration agreed with Skilling that the arts needed to become an exemplary aspect of the curriculum, he set his sights on how the facility could support the administration's new vision. Not only was it important to provide cultural literacy and exposure to the arts for the students of the high school, but also it was imperative that the new arts wing reach a larger audience - Byron Center's population of nearly 15,000 residents.

Skilling knew what was needed, and an auditorium was not it. "An auditorium is more like a glorified lecture hall. Usually the acoustical properties are terrible," says Skilling. Consultants aided in the design and construction of the largest theater stage in West Michigan, the Van Singel Arts Center. Over 6,000 square feet in size, the theater has a myriad of properties, such as 54 fly lines, 800 dimmers for lightning instruments, a large dressing room facility with 22 make-up stations, a green room for performers, and road show power on both sides of the proscenium, to name a few. Able to accommodate professional theater, dance, and musical performances, the Van Singel Arts Center brings off-Broadway shows in from cities like New York, Chicago, Nashville, and Los Angeles. Despite the theater's size, "it feels very intimate. [It was a] goal of ours to bring the most remote seat as close to the stage as possible," Mathison explains.

The musical department is attached to the back of the stage, facilitating easy access during recitals and concerts. Students of the visual and technical arts can move theater sets and work freely, composing stage designs and props due to the department's close proximity to the performing arts center.

Smooth sailing

In the fall of 1998, Byron Center High School opened its doors to approximately 670 students. The berg of Byron Center now has an athletic center, a performing arts venue, and an academic curriculum emphasizing the skills future job markets are seeking. The future is bright for new students and BCHS alumni, as well as the citizens of Byron Center. The new high school facility supports the ideas, goals, and technology of the 21st century. The future holds nothing but smooth sailing for the school, its faculty, and their visionary leader.

Jana J. Smith ( is senior associate editor for Buildings magazine.

Rough Waters Ahead

Previously, the Byron Center High School site had served as a farmer's field. Unbekownst to the Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., several nearby artesian spring and lenses of sand in the clay held excess water. "The site was a challenge," says Kris Ford, project manager, OAK, reflecting on the difficulty of solving this unexpected problem. Drainage ditches and the installation of perforated drainage tiles allowed water to empty into the storm sewer system.
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Author:Smith, Jana J.
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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