Astronaut John Glenn lived in Arlington, Va., for a time. He sent his children to Williamsburg Junior High School across the street from his house on North Harrison Street, and they played together on the nearby fields. His son and daughter sat in the house on Harrison, transfixed by the television, as they watched a rocket hurtle their father into space in 1962, making him the first American to orbit the Earth.
In tribute to the astronaut and former senator, Arlington school officials named the new North Arlington neighborhood school Discovery Elementary, a nod to Glenn’s 1998 return to space — at age 77 — aboard the space shuttle by the same name.
But the $41 million school, which is scheduled to open to more than 500 students Tuesday, is a radical departure in design from the one Glenn sent his children to five decades ago. Gone are the uniform-size classrooms, the broad brick facades and the long, straight corridors.
Discovery Elementary is filled with light and has flexible spaces and moveable walls, all designed to reflect new ideas about teaching and learning. It is the first new elementary school in Arlington since 2001, when Carlin Springs Elementary was constructed, and it comes at a time when the suburb is seeing unprecedented growth in its school-age population.
The new school is, in some ways, the antithesis of the modular, cookie-cutter buildings that dominated the school construction boom in the second half of the past century.
Bob Moje, president of VMDO, which designed Discovery Elementary, said he believes the old, familiar school designs were reflective of an outdated mode of thinking about education. “For a number of decades, we were herding students into buildings, thinking that we can reach them through a factory-type education,” Moje said.
But teachers today recognize that students who fall behind sometimes learn differently than their peers and just need a different kind of instruction.
This notion of differentiation was built into the building’s design: the broad corridors have workspaces with clusters of stools and beanbag chairs to encourage students to work in small groups. Some classrooms have walls that can be drawn back if teachers want to co-teach a lesson. Each school day has a 30-minute period built into the schedule, when teachers can break their classes into small groups based on what they need — an extra math lesson, for example, or a reading coach — so that children get specialized attention.
Principal Erin Russo last week enthusiastically showed off the light-filled corridors, some of which were still crowded by boxes of supplies, amid the din of power tools as work on the building continued. Russo said everything but the murals was set to be completed by the first day of school.
“We have many collaborative spaces,” Russo said, pointing out the “Cloud Commons,” a seating area at the end of a hallway with plush beanbags. “The idea is that learning doesn’t have to take place within the confines of a classroom.”
Even the seating is built for students who learn in different ways. There are low, flexible stools that bend a little for students who find it easier to concentrate if they can move around a bit. The tables and chairs are feather-light plastic, so they can be moved and reconfigured without much effort.
And in a nod to fun, children — and maybe adults, too — can blow off steam with a ride on a bright-yellow tube slide that coils its way from the second floor to the first.
On a cloudless summer day, sunlight touched nearly every corner of the building with the help of vast windows and sun tubes; experts say that students learn better when they are exposed to natural light.
The building, too, is designed to be incorporated in lessons. With a rooftop full of solar panels and a geothermal-well system to heat and cool water, it will be a “net-zero” building, meaning it will produce at least as much energy as it uses and is estimated to return $1 million in savings and solar tax credits to the district over 20 years. At 98,000 square feet, it is the largest net-zero school building in the United States, according to VMDO.
The school will feature a rooftop solar lab with a moveable solar array, allowing students to learn about the photovoltaic panels fueling their school. Signs will teach them about the geothermal wells.
Even the school’s layout is intended to be built into lessons. Each wing of the school corresponds with a theme: kindergartners start in the “Backyard,” with each classroom named for a backyard critter that students will explore through lessons. With each grade, students broaden their horizons: Second-graders are in the “Ocean,” and fifth-graders are in the “Solar System,” with classrooms named for astronomical features. The architects say it makes it easier for children to make their way around the building, especially because each wing has its own distinct paint colors.
“Instead of saying you’re in Room 250, you’re in the ‘Black Hole,’ or something cute, like the ‘Deer Mouse’ ” Russo said.
But even as she beamed with pride about the new facilities, Russo said it will be the teachers, not the building, that will make the difference.
“The building is fantastic and it’s going to support learning,” Russo said, “but I always come back to what the school is made of — and that’s the staff.”