Replacing century-old school draws on student input to create new building

Sept. 13, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by TSP.

As students and instructors in the Perham-Dent School District in Perham, Minn., began voicing what they wanted to see in a new high school, one wish was clear: Let there be light! On Sept. 4, when the 2018-19 school year officially started, that’s exactly what they found: a light-filled building that, through user input, is designed to enhance the student-staff experience.

Perham’s old public high school served the community well for 101 years, but it definitely reflected a different era,  Superintendent Mitch Anderson said. As architects from TSP Inc. and bhh Partners of Perham and consulting architect Ted Rozeboom led students, staff, faculty and community members through extensive public-input sessions, participants repeatedly requested that their new building feature natural lighting wherever possible.

The result: a 157,900-square-foot building with a two-story great hall that offers ample daylight in an area where students eat lunch and the public gathers. This area connects Perham High School’s two wings: one that contains classrooms and the other that houses a shared support space for administration, the gym and physical education, and visual and performing arts. Light also floods those areas. Altogether, it offers what Anderson describes as the less institutional and more warm and comfortable building his students requested as they met with those planning their new school.

“Students didn’t want to feel like they were sitting in school, so the color scheme, layout and design lend itself to a lot of small groups and large groups,” Anderson said. “The furniture is a lot of fun. And the old school went through the ’80s energy crisis and blocked up windows. Now, we have natural light.”

Facilities director Russ Winkels met with students on the first day of school.

“This building was designed for you; this building was built for you,” he told the excited audience. “Your friends and relatives have chosen to upgrade the community. Now, it’s your turn to take care of it.”

Winkels has seen how much easier it is to circulate around the new school. The old high school was three stories tall with a service elevator near the back for those who needed assistance. Now, like a hotel lobby, the elevator is one of the first things visitors see, and its use is encouraged. He compares the change to moving from a multistory house to a ranch style.

“Once you get in, you can operate pretty much the whole day on the same level,” Winkels said.

TSP architect Rob Collins said the project team’s goal was to create a contemporary facility separate from but connected to an existing middle school. That allows for some shared efficiencies such as maintenance equipment that can be taken to the other school.

Another major objective: creating needed space to help support education delivery and learning styles that were lacking in the old high school. Teachers no longer are assigned to one classroom, Anderson said. Instead, they work from a teacher-resource area, or prep station, throughout the day.

“A number of our classrooms sat empty for a full hour,” the superintendent said.

“Our science rooms can be used as regular math rooms or history rooms,” Winkels added.

“The school was designed so we got maximum usage out of it.”

Perham, a central Minnesota community of about 3,300 people, began the school year with 1,529 students enrolled in K-12, an increase of 96 students over the final tally of the 2017-18 school year. It has seen growth in the past three years, said Anderson, who is starting his eighth year as superintendent.

The town also is home to multiple thriving industries, such as Barrel O’ Fun Snack Foods, Tuffy’s Pet Foods and Kit Masters. Students who plan to attend a vocational school and then return to work at one of the area’s major employers now attend the Career Tech Center, which is linked to the high school.

The project team incorporated student feedback into the final design, Collins said. District staff intentionally sought student input, finding out what was desired as well as reviewing what did and did not work in the old school.

“Those user groups were critical to get where we are today,” Anderson said. “I give a lot of credit to the people from TSP and bhh. They sat through literally hundreds of meetings with administrators, staff, custodians, cooks, parents and students.”

That input is why the new school provides multiple spaces for students to go. In the past, the student union filled up before 8 a.m., and late arrivals sat on the hallway floor. Now, students can gather in the great hall, a warm and friendly environment with a tongue-and-groove ceiling and chairs that range from low-backs to cushiony to diner booths and traditional lunch tables. A music commons area between the band and choir room offers additional space.

“Students in the user groups said they wanted flexibility,” Anderson said. “In our user-group meetings, we had representatives from the ninth and 10th grades and juniors. They took it very seriously. They understood they were making decisions for the entire student body.”

Students asked for more variety in meal choices, so the cafeteria now offers five lines with entrees from hamburgers to make-your-own sandwiches and smoothies. The project team answered concerns about safety with several layers of protection before access to the main building. The old high school had more than 30 doors, making it difficult to monitor traffic in and out. By contrast, 95 percent of traffic enters the new school through one main door.

“Our No. 1 concern was student safety,” Winkels said. “Working with ICS (the owner’s representative) and TSP, they helped us lead our meetings where we talked about school safety, easy maintenance and low operating costs.”

The new HVAC system will send information automatically to Winkels and his staff, generating information on the heating and cooling trends it records. The $30 million building will be a good, long-term investment, Winkels said.

Perham High School is near Highway 10, and the curb appeal has been tremendous, Anderson said.

“People say they have driven by at different times of day and in the evening with the lights on, and we have this cool signage and the Yellowjacket (school logo) details on the window,” he said. “That exposure is hard to beat.”

The school district wanted a building that could adapt to future changes in education, Anderson said. That’s precisely what it got.

“Just the thought that went into every area, the design of it, the flexibility, the small spaces, the large spaces,” he said. “It’s a timeless building.”

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