The Learning Retreat

The Marysville Getchell Campus, designed by DLR Group, makes use of small learning communities and a beautiful site to provide high schoolers in the Pacific Northwest with a radically reshaped education.

by Adam Moore

As state budgets shrink and academic achievement accelerates around the globe, the debate over how to reshape the American education system has become red hot in recent years. But while most discussions on improving our nation's schools inevitably focus in on faculty and programming changes—fewer versus more teachers, more math and science versus arts programs—Marysville School District, located in northwestern Washington state, decided that a fundamental reshaping of the learning environment was instead necessary. A product of the district's partnership with national architecture and design firm DLR Group, the Marysville Getchell Campus is a radical rethinking of the high school experience, and may very well serve as a blueprint for other forward-looking districts across the nation.

Based upon the concept of "learning communities," a movement in secondary education towards smaller groups and more focused instruction, the Marysville Getchell Campus is comprised of five 35,000-square-foot buildings, four of which provide homes to specialized, independent learning academies, including the Academy of Construction and Engineering, Bio-Med Academy, the International School of Communications and the School for the Entrepreneur. The fifth building serves as a campus commons, providing a central kitchen, cafeteria, gymnasium, stage and shared support spaces. A series of exterior bridges and boardwalks link the buildings together, and the campus as a whole.

Inside, each building showcases the move away from a "cells and bells" layout and instead features an open "learning suite" floorplan. Hallways are a thing of the past at Marysville Getchell—instead, interconnected and flexible learning spaces fill each three-story building, providing a variety of instructional, applied learning, tutoring and research areas. Students and teachers can readily adapt spaces to suit their changing needs through the use of mobile furnishings and partitions.

"We were able to start with a holistic concept and then figure out where we needed separation and acoustical privacy, and what sizes and types of spaces needed to be grouped together," says Craig Mason, principal with DLR Group. "Instead of six individual spaces lined up, we were able to take six spaces and integrate them into more of a suite."

And while all four of the learning communities share the same shell and core design—not unlike modern corporate or retail environments—and many of the same architectural details, such as minimal finishes, exposed systems and polished concrete flooring, designers and district administrators sought to provide a distinct identity to each school. The use of color to distinguish spaces was a large part of the effort, and a graphics consultant was hired to create custom vinyl logos and signage for each school. But perhaps the most impressive differentiation for each community is how students have taken hold of spaces allocated for "applied learning" and turned them into both a reflection of their interests and a point of service for the entire campus.

"In the School of the Entreprenuer, they took that square footage and actually created a student store that serves the entire campus, and includes some gathering areas and a small café," Mason says. "The Bio-Med Academy created a space that allows them to do both sports medicine and provide services like body composition testing for other students. In the International School of Communications, they took that space and created a broadcast studio, so all of the broadcasting for the entire campus happens out of there."

Located in the midst of Washington's second-growth trees and forest wetlands, sustainability was also a large focus for all involved. The buildings themselves appear to be gently tucked into the sloping hillside and are situated under large old-growth trees, creating a sense of oneness with nature. That effect was achieved through careful site planning following the decision to work with nature, not against it. The three-story building design and the idea to connect the communities with bridges and boardwalks stemmed from a desire to minimize grading and maintain as much natural vegetation as possible. The surrounding trees provide sun control and natural cooling (along with operable windows), while the buildings are filled with high-efficiency glass to maximize natural daylighting. When coupled with a high-efficiency HVAC system, the campus beats local energy code requirements by 20 percent.

The result of the team's focus on preserving the site's natural beauty is a high school that feels more like a retreat than an institution. "I think the site is the thing that you notice first when you walk onto the campus," says Mason. "We worked really hard to make the remaining second-growth forest and understory be the focus of the project."

Of course, with any project this radical, there is bound to be pushback, and Marysville Getchell was no exception. The plan necessitated wholesale changes in the district's infrastructure—for example, boundary lines were abolished so that students could choose between the learning communities format and a traditional high school, which required a complete revamping of the transportation system—and it understandably took time for some members of the community to get onboard with the district's progressive vision. The design team made use of focus groups early in the planning stage to improve community buy-in, and while Mason acknowledges that "it took some work with the community and parents to have them understand that the whole philosophy here is different," the end result was clearly positive for all involved.

"We worked with a parents' focus group and there was one parent that had been particularly vocal about everything that was different from a traditional high school," he recalls. "At the third meeting, she finally stood up and said, 'This whole time I've been so angry that you guys have been trying to rob my son of his high school experience. What I realize now is that you're robbing him of my high school experience, but you're creating an even better one for him.'"

"I wanted to sign her up and hire her to go with me to every project from then on," he adds with a laugh.