Chartiers Valley settles into new middle school 'homes'
When Chartiers Valley Middle School Principal Adrienne Floro stands along the grey railing on the third floor of the newly constructed school and from that point, she can see nearly every corner of the building.
She sees the large, open commons room with an open ceiling that serves as everything from a cafeteria to a gathering space; the outer walkways, enclosed by railings on the two upper floors, that students use to get to class; and the entrances of each of the themed “houses,” where students — in their teams — attend all of their core classes.
“Sometimes I'll come up here, when I have to check emails or do some work from my phone, and just watch everything,” Floro said.
The new Chartiers Valley Middle School has opened in sections, starting in September, when students and staff moved into the main part of the school. The school offices opened in late 2017 and the encore classroom section of the building opened in January.
The gymnasium — what some teachers described as the icing on the cake — opened in March.
The library has yet to open.
Planning for the new school has been in the works for several years.
Architects met with teachers, community members and district leaders to define guiding principles for the building that were used to design the facility during the 2014-15 school year, Floro said.
Those included having a learner-focused campus, creating a safe environment, having a school that's flexible and agile and serves as the heart of the community, while promoting meaningful collaboration.
IKM Inc. served as the architect for the project and brought a design for the school that has mostly been used in the Pacific Northwest, Floro said.
Administrators did site visits, including to a school in Ohio, throughout the process.
Construction took place during the 2016-17 school year. The total cost of the new middle school and construction of a new Chartiers Valley High School was estimated to cost $93 million.
Unique to the design — at least in southwestern Pennsylvania — is that core classes at the middle school are located in “houses.”
Each house contains English, math, science, reading and social studies classrooms for that team of students. Middle school students are broken down into grade-level teams. There are two teams in each grade at Chartiers Valley Middle School.
Just inside each house are the lockers for the roughly 125 students on that team, along with their own bathrooms. Teachers in that house share an office where they keep their desks, instead of having a desk in each classroom.
Each house also has its own smaller commons area, where students can study or teachers can branch out from the classroom for lessons. There also is a reading lounge — enclosed with glass — in each house.
“It's definitely more organized,” said eighth-grader Mia Fox, 14. “It's nice that all of your classes are right there. For me, it's easier to connect our classes because sometimes we work together.”
Kaitlin Teyssier, 14, an eighth-grader, said she likes that her school now has so many windows and open spaces. The hallways at the old Chartiers Valley Middle School went in a circle. That was confusing, she said.
“I like the concept of the houses. This is who we are,” she said.
Large windows in the classrooms and the many of high, open ceilings are among math teacher Judy Kirtley's favorite parts.
“There's so much openness and natural light,” she said. “In the afternoon, you can throw the windows open and hear the birds chirping outside.”
The open concept also has allowed the school to unite in the last few months.
When students participated in the National School Walkout on March 14, in support of those who died in the Parkland, Fla., shooting a month prior, they gathered in the large commons area — then filling the second- and third-floor hallways, along the railings.
“I was actually in tears at the end,” Floro said. “We were all together. Everyone could see everyone.”
Each of the six houses has adopted its own theme: One is the tree house, while another is the Harry Potter house. Each classroom inside then branches off from that theme. In the Harry Potter house, they use the theme for competitions and bonding among students.
Large lettering at the entrance of the house asks, “Why do you want to be a student, when you can be a Wizard?” Inside they have Muggle Mondays, and classes compete for points.
“What's really fascinating is the culture within the houses,” Floro said. “It's been really neat to see how the homes have developed their own identities.”
Scattered throughout the school are rows of seating from Pittsburgh International Airport.
Floro, who noted that she loves auctions, said the contemporary style school came with no furniture budget.
Teacher Mark McAleer discovered an auction where rows of old airport seating — with three, four and five seats in each — were being sold for $2.
He “rigged up” a vehicle to haul them back to the school, which bought 77 of them for the new building.
“You'll see them everywhere,” Floro said.
The gray and red seating even goes with the design of the building.
The encore section of the building opened in January, with large classroom spaces for shop and STEM.
The two art teachers worked with architects so their classrooms would have a sliding wall to divide them. That way, they can share things like paint and other supplies and have one central station for students to use, said art teacher Shana Colwes.
“The flow of the room is just great,” she said.
The rooms also have an outdoor learning terrace that, teachers and administrators joke, they'll be able to use, if the weather ever gets warm.
The gymnasium, which opened last month, is “the best part of the school,” said Cate Gannon, middle school health and physical education teacher, pointing to the high ceilings and large windows that bring in natural lighting.
“It's the ‘wow,' for sure,” she said.
Students and staff members alike rave about all aspects of the new school.
“I think the kids really like their new school. They have so much respect here. They take pride in the school,” said Dona Gaudio, who works as the middle school head custodian.
In her 37 years in the district, this is the cleanest she's ever seen a school at the end of the day. She credits that to the students taking pride in their new school.
“I like everything about it,” Gaudio said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.