A Shift in the Approach to Education
Located in the small town of El Segundo, just a few miles away from Los Angeles International Airport, lies Wiseburn High School, the newest addition to Wiseburn Unified School District. Wiseburn has long been a cut above many school districts, as is evident by their three, separate charter high schools focused on design, communications and science, as well as their passion for providing next-generation math and engineering opportunities. However, the district is taking the leap from ‘different’ to ‘innovative’ with its new high school.
For many years, Wiseburn School District only encompassed grades K-8. That was until 2001, when the community began the process of actively advocating for a high school, in hopes of becoming the unified school district they are today. By 2008, however, the school district had made little to no progress towards their goal; as a result, the board decided to kick-start the process with charter schools. Enter the creation of the three Da Vinci charter schools: the Da Vinci School of Science, the Da Vinci School of Communications and the Da Vinci School of Design. Each high school caters to approximately 200-500 students and centers its curriculum on a unique area of focus. Compared with traditional high schools, where more general subject matters are taught, Wiseburn is preparing its students with deeper, more centralized knowledge.
“We’re preparing kids for what’s coming next in life, whether that’s college or a career,” explains Dr. Tom Johnstone, superintendent of Wiseburn Unified School District. While most courses of study emphasize memorizing facts and passing end-of-year tests, Wiseburn is geared towards project-based learning, student engagement and preparation for life post-graduation. With programs like Project Lead the Way, which involves children in engineering pathways starting as early as kindergarten, and Math Leadership Core, a collaboration with Loyola Marymount University to focus math skills through all grade levels, Wiseburn Unified School District is creating a future forward curriculum from start to finish. Students graduating from the district are heading towards Ivy League schools and the University of California, Los Angeles or are gaining internships at aerospace companies such as SpaceX and Boeing—results of a dynamic course of study.
It’s a concept known as MindShift: changing the way we educate to adopt twenty-first century thinking. Popularized by the book Humanizing the Education Machine—co-authored by Balfour Beatty’s division president in California, Brian Cahill—MindShift approaches education with the idea of labs over lectures. This involves innovation in school curriculum as well as evolution in building design and construction.
“In reading the Humanizing the Education Machine book, I was shocked to discover that sixty-five percent of future jobs kids in kindergarten will have do not exist yet,” comments Gil Fullen, vice president of business development and education for Balfour Beatty. “How do you prepare a kid for a job that doesn’t exist? You prepare them for change, for evolution and you give them a space that inspires them.” Indeed, that is exactly what Wiseburn High School will achieve.
The New Building
While the Da Vinci charter schools were fostering an impressive curriculum, the three separate buildings were less than extraordinary. In 2013, Wiseburn Unified School District made the decision to build a new high school, one large enough to house all three of the Da Vinci charter schools and innovative enough to inspire further creativity. This meant deviating from the traditional one-story buildings with small windows, long hallways and classrooms with rows of desks to a multi-story facility with flexible classroom space. So, a year before construction would begin, Wiseburn Unified School District retained Gensler as the architect and Balfour Beatty as the general contractor, involving both companies with the initial plans ranging from design development to setting fundamental budgets.
Since the district planned to repurpose a former aerospace engineering building for a more cost-effective approach, extensive tests were conducted and the Title 24 California code was met, ensuring the building would be safe for educational purposes and all Division of the State (DSA) approvals were obtained. Once such conditions were met, construction on the facility began. With Balfour Beatty’s input during preconstruction, Gensler architects and the school district designed and developed a $140 million, four-story, 210,000-square-foot facility featuring an 80-foot by 40-foot atrium and expansive floor to ceiling windows that flood the halls with natural light.
“We designed collaboration classrooms, creative spaces and conference rooms,” illustrates Vince Madsen, director of facilities planning for Wiseburn Unified School District. “It looks more like a workplace than a school.”
The building features technology and software with real world applications, such as laser cutters and an Autodesk Inventor. In addition, each floor is customized to house one of the Da Vinci charter schools, with the science school including full fabrication labs and the design school containing 3D printers. Each floor is broken into four flexible sections that can be used as various sized class spaces, grade level huddles or even individual learning pods. The ground floor contains open spaces for the different schools to mingle, as well as a black box theater and school district offices.
Thanks to Balfour Beatty’s early inclusion in the planning process, the Wiseburn team checked everything off their list. The new high school, which opened for the 2017-2018 school year, is raising the standard on education, both in how and where it should be taught. Perhaps in twenty years, when the children in kindergarten graduate and enter fields and job spaces we cannot even yet imagine, they will be more prepared due to schools like Wiseburn paving the way of future forward education.