Heavy equipment operators are busy prepping land for a new kindergarten through eighth-grade school on 100 acres off U.S. Highway 27 near Rock Spring, Ga.
The result of five years of planning, the new school will relieve overcrowding at Cherokee Ridge Elementary School near Chickamauga and at LaFayette Middle School. Its environmentally friendly features will include natural lighting, and the school’s huge hallways will serve as space for project-based learning.
Now all it needs is a name.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Walker County school board Vice Chairwoman Patty Hart said, explaining the board has been focused on hiring a new superintendent.
While naming the new school hasn’t been top priority, all kinds of thought and research went into its design.
Hart was among the Walker County Schools officials and parents who boarded buses several years ago to get ideas for the new K-8 facility. They toured other area schools, including the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy in Dalton, Ga., and the Bright School and Orchard Knob Elementary in Chattanooga.
“They were pretty much looking toward a [science, technology, engineering and math] school with lots of labs, in the beginning,” district spokeswoman Elaine Womack said.
But after touring other schools, the planning group leaned toward a design for collaborative, project-based learning. That means classrooms built around large common areas where students can collaborate on projects.
“It’s become the up-and-coming educational model in the country,” Womack said.
A good example, she said, is Ridgeland High School’s new aquaponics lab, at which students studying a variety of subjects — including environmental science, engineering and business — are raising catfish and tilapia that they hope to sell.
Hart explained, “It’s more of a hands-on learning [experience]. It’s not sitting and listening to a lecture.”
Environmental friendliness was another priority that came out of the planning sessions, said Chattanooga architect J. Patrick Neuhoff, who designed the $15 million school.
Neuhoff’s design incorporates features such as clerestory windows, which are raised, north-facing windows that will flood classrooms with natural light on sunny days. Baffles will diffuse the light, he said.
“You never really see direct sunlight. So it’s not like it’s a glare, or harsh on your eyes,” Neuhoff said.
The two-story, 115,000-square-foot school will hold 500 to 600 students to start — but will have room for more than 1,000 students. It will be faced with brick and have a traditional look. A new road is under construction from Highway 27.
Neuhoff also drew plans on the 100-acre site for a future high school, a traffic roundabout to make dropping students off easier, a covered pedestrian walkway right down the middle of the combined campus, a proposed, brick-faced stadium between the two schools, and a plaza between the stadium and high school.
The K-8 school is being built far back on the site; the high school would be closer to the highway.
“We wanted the elementary school in the back, to keep it away from the high-traffic areas,” Neuhoff explained.
The K-8 school is due to open in the fall of 2013, Hart said. The school board hasn’t yet figured out its attendance boundaries.
The school was built to draw kids from Cherokee Ridge Elementary, where overcrowding has required temporary classrooms, and from LaFayette Middle School, where sixth-graders have been moved into the old high school in a separate sixth-grade academy.
When the new K-8 school opens, LaFayette’s sixth-grade academy will close, partly because state funding for it is ending, Hart and Womack said.
Funding for the new K-8 school already is in place, Womack said. It mainly comes from a 1-cent educational special purpose local option sales tax along with state funds, she said.
The school district may hold a contest to name the new K-8 school, or the board may pick a name.
An official groundbreaking ceremony is planned. The sight of construction equipment has piqued people’s interest in the K-8 school, Hart said.
District officials don’t know when they might build a new high school on the 100-acre site.
Hart said LaFayette High School, which was built in 1999, has temporary classrooms. But the district is dealing with that by adding new classrooms there.
Someday, though, “having the land there already is going to be a huge benefit, if we do need a high school,” Hart said of the 100-acre site.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.