Jeff Chambers, director of Design and Construction for Arlington County Public Schools, demonstrates a reading nook in the second floor library.
Photo by Shirley Ruhe.
Alice West Fleet Elementary School is ready — well almost ready — to open for the 2019-20 school year next week after five years of design, budgeting, community meetings, and closely monitoring each step of the building process. Construction workers balance on tall ladders as they finalize the finishing touches on the walls by the entrance. "Wet Paint" signs dot the interior walls, and a pungent smell drifts down the first floor hallway as workers finish off the gymnasium floor.
Jeff Chambers, director of Design and Construction for Arlington Public Schools, says the biggest challenge for Alice West Fleet was the scarcity of available land in Arlington. As a result, this school was built on the former parking lot for Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Community Center. "It is vertical with a four-story elementary school on top of a two-story garage. We do things differently. We go up with four floors instead of spreading out like most elementary schools."
Walk in the lobby and you quickly notice a large floor-to-ceiling pole covered with LED lights. "This is a net zero energy building powered by geothermal and solar. When we are generating more power than we are using, the lights will be green, and when we are using more electricity than we are generating, the lights will be red."
A climbing wall covers the wall to the left of the entrance.
"Over there will be a mural of Alice West Fleet, the namesake of this school.” Fleet was an Arlington County educator for 31 years and the first black teacher in the county to teach at a previously all-white school. She was an advocate for equal rights in education.
Chambers explains that the K-first grade classrooms are located on the first floor with the Dining Commons and gymnasium.
Emma Urban is in her first grade classroom setting up for next week. She looks around. "It's kind of a mess right now." She says this is her first year of teaching and she has a classroom of 19 students. "I feel so lucky to be here."
Chambers continues, "The school capacity is 725 seats so the cafeteria will have three lunch periods." This year they expect 625 students. The second floor will have the second and third grade classrooms with the library and the art rooms. "See over here on the wall are reading nooks where kids can sit and read. They are located all over the school." Chambers grabs a book and curls up in one.
Walking through the library leads to an outdoor space protected by a safety wall. "It's like a patio, only one floor up." He explains it is a space where there can be a good indoor-outdoor connection.
He says, "Let's pop out in the second art room." Chambers points out the use of natural light. "We use as little electricity as possible."
The fourth grade classrooms are located on the third floor with the fifth grade on the top floor along with a display of solar panels. In between there are many breakout spaces where students can do independent work. Anyone in need of an elevator can use one but "we encourage kids to take the stairs — healthy living." And if you don't like the stairs, there is another option between floors three and two where a bright red slide "allows kids with a lot of extra energy to wear it off. Discovery Elementary has one of these slides, and it has proven very popular."
The building space was designed by VMDO architects in Charlottesville to combine the needs of Fleet with Thomas Jefferson Middle School next door. Differing starting schedules for each school allow buses to share space for discharge of students. TJ extended day students use the Fleet cafeteria before their school starts at 7:50 a.m. Then approximately 250 Fleet students rotate into the same cafeteria space where specially built cubbies line one of the walls. Fleet starts at 9 a.m. Both TJ and Fleet share the two-story parking lot under Fleet.
All classrooms are pretty similar with interactive screens and natural light. The occupancy permit was received Aug. 19 so teachers have been filtering in putting their own touch on their spaces. Workers are busy in the halls applying glue to large posters that will be on the walls reinforcing the biosphere theme in the school. Each classroom has an animal motif outside the door and a color keeping with the overall environmental focus.
Outside the school, the playground is coming together. A "snake" shaped mound curls around the edge of the playground. "It was designed so a wheelchair could travel along the top."
Chambers points out that the building was designed with mixed materials so it doesn't look so much like a school. "We wanted it to look friendly." He points to the neighbors in back of the school. "It's their yard, too."