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After 25 Years, SLHS Gets Makeover

Drawbacks of original design have led to much-needed improvements.

As something of a 25th anniversary makeover, South Lakes High School will soon undergo major renovations, finally providing the school with such amenities as classroom doors, windows, and properly functioning light switches.

The school, which marked its 25 anniversary last Friday, was originally designed to be an "Open Plan" school — a concept prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s built around the idea that classroom walls put physical and educational boundaries around students.

Consequently, most of the school’s original classroom were located in one large room, with classes separated by book shelves and furniture.

For the first year South Lakes was open, however, the noise from contiguous classes proved insufferable.

"The thinking at the time was that classes wouldn’t interfere with one another because they’d be concentrating on what the teacher was saying," said Jay Garvin, one of the original architects who designed South Lakes. "But it just didn't work."

To rectify the noisiness, thin walls were erected to break the school into smaller classrooms. However, since the walls were not intended to exist under the original plans, the fire marshal forbade classroom doors from ever being installed, forcing the school to use curtains instead.

To compound the problems, many of the light switches did not correspond with each particular classroom, making teachers’ lives difficult when it came time to dim the lights for movies or to use an overhead projector.

Similarly, the heating and cooling system was not built to accommodate the separate classrooms.

"When you're an Open Plan school and you try to break it into little rooms, it just doesn’t work," said Garvin, whose two daughters graduated from South Lakes in the 1990s.

Despite the urban legend, which was fueled by the building’s conspicuous lack of windows, Garvin and his team were not, in fact, prison architects.

"I never did a prison in my life," he chuckled. "The school system didn’t want the students to be distracted so they said ‘No windows.’"

Also, because the school was built on the tail end of the energy crisis, it was also thought that fewer windows would conserve heat and be cheaper in the long run.

WITH CONCEPTUAL plans finalized and renovation set to begin in fall next year, most of South Lakes’ unusual problems will soon be memories.

John McLeod, a designer with the Eddy & Eckhardt Architects firm who is overseeing the South Lakes renovation project, said the plans will preserve the school’s character, but will vastly improve the outdated design.

"Schools develop their own personality and we’re trying to preserve that," McLeod said. "But hopefully we’ll be able to give it a little less of a forbidding aspect."

Apart from basic improvements, such as working light switches, classroom doors, windows, and a functioning HVAC system, renovation plans call for skylights, significantly more classroom space, major landscaping, and canopies on both sides of the building under which students can wait for the bus or car rides.

The renovation will be done in five stages while school is in session. Depending on the stage, as many as one-third of the student body will attend class in trailers, said Bruce Butler, the 11th grade assistant principal who is overseeing the renovation on the administration side.

"After this is done, every student's learning environment will be improved wholesale," Butler said.

Both parents and faculty members had substantial input into the renovation plan, Butler said.

"The architect asked what are the things you love about the building and what are the things that drive you crazy," he said.

That input guaranteed that South Lakes’ sub-school concept, which involves counselors and teachers from the four different grade levels to be clustered together, would be maintained. Also, faculty and parent input ensured that the school’s defining characteristic — it’s wide main corridor — would be preserved under the plan.

One of the school’s funkier aspects, however, will be lost when the four cafeterias are combined into one large area.

School construction officials said they wanted to move the kitchens, which operate a floor below the cafeterias, but it simply wasn’t feasible.

"Unfortunately, there’s only so much in the school that we can demolish," said Kevin Sneed, assistant director of the Office of Design and Construction Services.

SINCE THE DAY South Lakes opened a quarter century ago, Kay Spinks has worked as a secretary under five principals. Spinks said she’ll be glad to see the school modernized but will miss some of the unusualness of the building.

"A lot of tradition goes down with this renovation," she said.

Though the school building is changing, she said, the students are much the same as they were in the late-1970s.

"Kids are kids, for the most part," she said. "Twenty-five years ago I didn’t see the pink hair walking down the hallways though. And the earrings and all the piercings are different. You’d see it maybe on pep rally days but not everyday. It’s an eye-opener. I guess I’m just old fashioned."

Ronnie Altobelli, the school’s assistant principal for special education, who has worked at South Lakes since its second year, said the renovation has been a long time coming.

"Modernization is nice," she said. "Adding some of the changes and making improvements will be uplifting for the faculty and for the students."

The school’s Student Government Association sponsor and girl’s varsity basketball coach, Lindsay Trout, who graduated from South Lakes in 1991, said everyone she has talked to can’t wait for the building to be brought into the 21st Century.

"It's a more than welcome change," she said. "I think it’ll be a good thing for everybody."