Waterford High School's Digital Journey / by mel leblond

WATERFORD, Conn.—With the finishing touches of the new Waterford High School nearly complete, students are discovering the benefits of tech learning in a 21st century educational space.

WaterfordHigh_02_int media center.JPG

Article from School Construction News

The $65 million school was designed by JCJ Architecture, with offices in Hartford, Conn., and constructed by O&G Industries, Inc., which is headquartered in Torrington, Conn. A new 5,000-square-foot media center is the highlight of the project and features a flexible student commons with extensive tech support. The media center is complete with WiFi, projection capabilities and interactive white boards but also uses movable furniture to recreate spaces to the student’s liking.
The media center offers only three stationary computers as the students are encouraged to either BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) or make use of the portable laptops to use the several distinct spaces throughout the center. By encouraging BYOD, the entire school can essentially become a media center. Students can readily and easily share information without having to find a computer lab or consult a teacher.
While a large class of students can come into the space and use the center accordingly, similarly an individual student could create their own space in the designated quiet studying areas.
“In its daily use, the students are using the center in a variety of ways and they’re changing up the way they use it,” Czarnecki said.
Simply by using the flexible furniture, Czarnecki said, the design team created a number of zones to accommodate all forms of interaction and learning. This inspires students to transform the space into their own and use it as they see fit for their individual learning needs.

“The students are using the spaces in a multitude of ways, not just for classes,” said Emily Czarnecki, interior designer with JCJ. “They’re using it as a study hall; they’re using it as a place to gather with their friends; they’re using it as a place for quiet study time and also for group work.”

The media center also encourages student collaboration and social interaction. Kids can come into the center with their own devices and work together on the high top tables or various work-spaces. This creates a university feel or café-style learning setting. Students of this generation crave variety in their learning spaces, Czarnecki said.
“The way this generation of students works [requires] a much more relaxed environment. Kids want to sit down with their smart phones or their tablets and socialize with their friends,” Czarnecki said. “That whole Starbucks, café-like style was really integrated into the design.”
The location of the media center is near the entrance of the school in order to be an accessible resource for students, teachers and the community. JCJ Architecture surveyed students to accommodate their needs and to provide them with the most beneficial experience. These surveys also assisted the firm in understanding those evolving needs for future projects that serve the same generation.
Some traditional elements of school libraries, such as book stacks, are becoming obsolete, Czarnecki said. The idea of a library used solely for the purpose of checking out books is becoming outdated, as research as well as books can be found online or on a portable tablet.
“As designers, we’re always trying to look toward the future,” Czarnecki said. “We found, by interviewing some of these students and getting some of their feedback, it’s very helpful for us to see where the trends are going.”
The firm also worked closely with school administrators. “At JCJ we really worked closely with the superintendent, the school and the staff to develop the space that would not only help them achieve their dreams, but to really invite the students into a space, become a hub for the school and get students engaged in an interactive space, Czarnecki said.

Change in Design
The original design of the media center was more geared to the traditional library setting with book stacks and fixed furnishings. However, with a change in leadership and motivation to create a more high-tech environment, the design team was charged with the challenge of creating a more 21st century media center.
“As the design progressed and we actually started getting into construction, the design changed. We started working with new leadership and we found a new direction, a more forward-thinking direction, to really create this more student-commons type of space,” Czarnecki said. “It really got them out of their comfort zone with the traditional library and it was a really radical change to go to this very flexible hub space with wireless technology.”
The days of sitting in fixed rows with heads down and studying in the library are over for Waterford High School students.
When the designers visited the site, they witnessed students in the media center throughout using all aspects of the space. The designers commented that they were impressed with how quickly the students adapted to the space and noticed a positive behavior change. Though the design was an ultimate success, the design change also was the greatest challenge in the project, Czarnecki said.
“While the building was already under construction, we had to find a way to redesign the space but keep within budget and on schedule. We really kept the space for the most part the same,” she said. “But we changed a lot of the types of furniture we used, we added transparency between a lot of the smaller spaces to the main space, and we opened up the library. It was completely visible from all angles.”

Audrey Arthur
Audrey Arthur is a staff writer for School Construction News.