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The West Side's 'school of the future'

Chip Ellis
Preparation work continues at the site of the new school on Charleston's West Side. The school, which is expected to open in 2014, is under construction in an area north of Wood Road and Edgewood Country Club.
Courtesy illustration
The West Side's new "school of the future" as depicted by ZMM Architects and Engineers, the Charleston firm that is designing the school. It is expected to open by the fall of 2014.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Side's new $21 million school will be mostly composed of large "exploratory centers" instead of standard classrooms, and will offer a new type of integrated curriculum that emphasizes learning and technology that allows students to direct their own learning.The new "museum-like," 52,000 square-foot "school of the future" planned near Edgewood Country Club is set to welcome students by fall 2014, and will consolidate the oldest buildings in the district, J.E. Robins and Watts elementary schools.Four large instructional centers will house 60 to 75 students at a time, with four to five teachers guiding the students.  Two of the exploratory centers will be for second- and third-graders and two for fourth- and fifth-grade students. They'll feature space for art and science projects, a performance arena and a shared library and media center. Each exploratory center also will host three individual classrooms for direct math and reading instruction.Sliding doors and moveable partitions will allow for flexibility if teachers need to temporarily separate the classrooms. Pre-kindergarten through first-grade students will remain in a traditional classroom setting in order to focus on early literacy, math and socialization skills.Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring expects the unique school to be unlike anything the area has seen before."Like a children's museum, kids will have a variety of interesting areas to work with and explore. It's different than anything we've done. It's the first time we've actually designed the building to make it fit the curriculum, rather than making it fit the building," he said. Each student will have access to a personal wireless device to check their daily schedules, participate in online independent studies and provide instructors with immediate feedback of their progress."It's about self-directed learning. Kids are going to take primary responsibility, and the teachers will be on the side, guiding them through the processes of researching and experimenting," Duerring said.The new school will also help students learn about environmental and health issues.Signs throughout the building will monitor the school's energy use, and students will learn about air quality, efficient HVAC systems, solar power and recycling.
"The building will be a learning tool in and of itself. Even a section of the wall will be exposed to show how buildings are constructed," said Jane Roberts, assistant superintendent for elementary schools. "We're trying to help students develop all sorts of skills."Each area also will have direct access to outdoor instructional and recreation spaces.The learning environment will teach students a lot about teamwork and the real world, too, Roberts said.
"Teachers will be working together and sharing responsibilities. They will be able to learn from each other even though they all have different styles of teaching. That family unit is going to be very beneficial for the children," she said.Teachers will undergo staff development and will be asked to make a three-year commitment to the school to ensure effectiveness.Last week, the state School Building Authority gave Kanawha County another $1 million to finish the project when they voted to help close a $2.8 million budget gap caused by complications with building on the hilly terrain.Kanawha County Schools will contribute a total of about $11 million to build the new school."This is a really unique school, and this has been a new experience for everyone involved," said Adam Krason with ZMM Architects and Engineers, the firm that's working with the state School Building Authority on the project. "But because of the many discussions about the funding it would take, the focus has never really been on what's actually going to happen inside the school."It's time for people to focus on what a great learning opportunity this is for students," Krason said.
Construction is set to begin in November.Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-5100. 
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