A Campus's Spectacular Plans

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

With all the hotshot development going on in Silver Spring, including the Discovery Channel headquarters, the AFI Silver Theatre and blocks of upscale retail, it would be surprising if the biggest architectural splash came from a tiny school a few blocks from downtown. But the Chelsea School's plans for its campus upgrade are likely to bring some design envy.

The 85-student school is launching a four-year, $12 million fundraising campaign to turn its modest campus into a head-turning showpiece with the help of the team of renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, designer of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the new World Trade Center in New York. The school hopes to raise an additional $8 million for scholarships, classroom technology and staff development.

"This a watershed moment for our school," said Anthony Messina, who has led the school for three years. "Our goal is to make Chelsea one of the most advanced math, science and technology high schools for students with learning disabilities in the country."

Those are ambitious plans for an institution that just three years ago had students protesting in the street over strained relations between teachers and the interim headmaster. But since then, observers say, the atmosphere on campus has improved, more students are passing state achievement tests and most of this year's graduates are heading to college. Chelsea's profile appears to be rising among specialized private schools. Former Washington Redskins star LaVar Arrington gave the school's graduation speech last week.

Students come to Chelsea on referral from public schools in the region, with the $35,000 tuition paid by their former school systems. They are strong middle and high school students who are hampered by severe dyslexia or other language-based learning disabilities. Chelsea, which was founded in 1976 by the parents of two dyslexic students, uses small classes and intensive individualized tutoring to help such students.

In recent years, Messina has increased the school's focus on math and technology, viewing them as promising fields for his reading-challenged students. Last week, the Maryland State Department of Education asked the school to help evaluate the state's technology career development curricula.

Even with Chelsea's recent successes, how did this tiny organization in a run-down former Catholic school get one of the world's leading architectural firms to design its new campus?

It asked.

Enlisting friends of friends, Messina eventually got a brief phone interview with the New York-based architect's wife, Nina Libeskind. After Messina described his school and his ambitions for a new building, Daniel Libeskind agreed to send an architect to see the site. Eventually, the firm agreed not only to provide pro-bono conceptual work by Libeskind's protégé, Robert Claiborne, but also to spearhead the campaign to raise $20 million and to help negotiate at-cost materials for the project.

"We could have built a big square box, but we're not a sleepy organization," Messina said. "We're not going to put just an okay program into a world-class building; it's going to be a world-class program. That's my challenge to the staff." He said the school will be able to serve up to 120 students.

The design centers on a dramatic metal-and-glass library cantilevered over a 40-foot slope in the middle of the one-block lot between Pershing and Ellsworth drives. The structure, meant to suggest the form of a book, will tower over sporting fields that will conceal underground parking.

The building and surrounding terraces will create a striking impression from Ellsworth Drive, where a new entrance will be located. But the view of the campus will remain largely unchanged for neighbors on the other three sides. A building that once housed a convent will be demolished. A low-rise brick classroom building will be rehabilitated, and the yellow frame house on Pershing Drive that houses administrative offices will be intact.

The plans call for relocating bus traffic and student drop-offs to the Ellsworth Drive entrance and away from the smaller residential streets where they had been a neighborhood irritant for years. That shift could make it easier to win community support for the project when it comes before county planners, a local activist said.

"Actually, we're enthusiastic about their plans to expand," said Mark Gabriele, president of the surrounding Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association. "The relocation of traffic would make the neighborhood very happy, and the reaction has been pretty uniformly positive. It's going to be an architectural showpiece."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company