New Charter Oak School to Incorporate IB Learning Principles

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — The new Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford is on schedule to debut in time for the 2016-2017 school year. Designed by the Stamford, Conn., office of Perkins Eastman, the project will address two goals for West Hartford Public Schools: To expand both public school Pre-K instruction and magnet school enrollment at Charter Oak to meet the state of Connecticut’s mandated racial balance goals, according to Chip Ward, director of finance and planning for the school district. Once completed, Charter Oak will admit 80 students per grade from Pre-K through fifth grade to serve a total of 560 students.

West Hartford has operated Charter Oak as one of its two intra-district magnet schools since the late 1990s. The existing Charter Oak building was constructed in 1929 in a different era and to meet different demands. The original design did not envision transporting students via bus — the drop-off is located offsite — nor did it plan for student nutrition, as students went home for lunch in the past and a cafeteria was not required. The district has maintained the building well, but it can no longer fulfill its mission as a magnet school, nor does it have adequate space to attract enough magnet students.

Designed to achieve a minimum of LEED Gold, the building will also embody International Baccalaureate learning principles in its design. School Construction News spoke with Joe Costa, principal-in-charge of the project for Perkins Eastman, to learn more.
Q: How did Perkins Eastman incorporate sustainability throughout the school building?
Costa: Charter Oak International Academy is required to comply with the State of Connecticut High Performance Building Standards for State Agency Buildings and School Buildings, and is registered with the USGBC to achieve a minimum of LEED Gold certification. The project implements geothermal wells and a 100kW photovoltaic array on the roof. This school is designed without boilers and uses heat pumps for cooling and heating the spaces. The exterior envelope includes high thermal resistance wall and roof construction as well as low “E” glazing and thermally broken aluminum window frames. In addition to its circular design, it will be an exemplary energy-efficient building.
Q: What role does technology play in the school?
Costa: A magnet school that delivers the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program (PYP), Charter Oak’s curriculum is centered on inquiry-based learning, where all concepts are examined through the investigation of current world issues. Technology-rich classrooms will promote research, creativity and confidence through a variety of media tools. Media and technology systems are designed to be easily accessible to students and teachers as well as easily updated as technology and needs inevitably evolve. The technology includes building-wide commercial-grade wireless, all-new computers or laptops, an interactive large-format LCD screen in every classroom and a video or TV distribution system using IP. Designed to serve as a teaching tool, much of the building systems will be exposed to view, and the interior courtyard offers opportunities for outdoor learning, performances and science experimentation.
Q: What staff/teacher feedback did the design team receive during the design process, and how was that feedback incorporated into the project?
Costa: Engaging teachers and staff was crucial to our development of a successful design to respond to the program’s requirements. The program addresses each student’s academic, social and emotional wellbeing. It is a framework guided by six transdisciplinary themes of global significance, explored using knowledge and skills derived from all subject areas: Who We Are, Where We Are in Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, How the World Works, How We Organize Ourselves and Sharing the Planet. It focuses on the development of the whole child as an inquirer, both in the classroom and in the world outside. It encourages independence and asks that students take responsibility for their own learning.
Perkins Eastman also met with the faculty representative to develop the education specifications and create a detailed education program for the school. Additionally, Perkins Eastman met with public safety officials to collect their input for the school design.
Students, teachers and the West Hartford community were also asked to describe their “ideal” new Charter Oak School. While a number of “wish list” items were expressed, such as chocolate milk in the water coolers, the responses where surprisingly consistent between the groups: the need for natural light and large windows, high-performance technology and, most importantly, a forward-looking, “modern” school design. Thematically, the PYP program includes a number of activities, ceremonies and events centered about circular activities. Many expressed the desire for a circular plan evoking the idea of a “pavilion in a park” and a school that is welcoming from all sides.
The new building and classrooms are designed to encourage students to become curious, problem-solving global citizens. The unique circular design represents and supports the school’s transdisciplinary and inclusive approach to learning. The PYP curriculum supports the connections across subjects and grades. The physical plan of the school embodies and supports this distinctive educational philosophy. Designed to serve as the heart of the school, the enclosed courtyard is large enough to accommodate multiple classes simultaneously. The auditorium stage is designed to open into the courtyard and accommodates both indoor and outdoor seating.
Q: How does this project differ from those Perkins Eastman has completed in the past?
Costa: Charter Oak International Academy is one of several IB schools that Perkins Eastman has designed in the U.S. and internationally, but it is the first IB school that we have designed in a circular plan configuration. While the geometry of a radial design is obvious, the design team managed to organize the large common spaces so that they relate closely to the exterior plan and allow for after-hours community use. Moreover, the academic classrooms and the media center are arranged on the academic side of the circular plan, responsive to the need for quieter areas for study, lecture and project presentations.

The circular plan is broken up by common spaces such as the cafeteria, gymnasium, media center and auditorium, providing counterpoint to the smooth circular façade. These occur both in plan and three-dimensionally as one moves through the school. Furthermore, to encourage interaction between the common spaces, views are provided through the building and across the central open-air courtyard. Students can see learning on display. A unique feature of the auditorium design is its opening to the exterior of the back of the stage. Designed to provide a performance platform facing either the interior seating or the exterior courtyard amphitheater, the auditorium allows for a wide variety of performance experiences.

Lastly, the new building includes several decorative wrought-iron elements salvaged from the existing school as a way to preserve and honor the memory of the old school. These elements are treated with accent illumination and are part of the façade of the new school.