There are significant gaps in how schools prepare all students for jobs in the future workforce. “The great majority of high school students want to attain a bachelor’s or advanced degree — because many high school students and their parents know that such degrees provide access to managerial and professional jobs with higher salaries, attractive working conditions, and greater employment security — but in fact, only about one in three will complete a bachelor’s degree. If high schools only try to prepare students for four-year colleges and universities, many young people will finish their schooling without any technical knowledge or skill to earn a living.” (Visher & Stern, 2015). Rather than letting students slip through the cracks, our clients are discovering that they need to offer more non-traditional learning opportunities that will provide their students with the skills and experiences necessary to thrive after graduation. They are focusing on the student as a whole person—considering their mental, physical, and emotional health and well-being—as well as designing student-centered learning opportunities for all.
One way to provide students with more holistic learning opportunities is by offering career and technical education (CTE) opportunities within the K-12 school system. In recent years, school systems have revived and modernized their CTE programs in response to a growing body of data that shows many jobs will disappear or require new skills in the next few decades (Simmons, 2018). Therefore, school districts want to better support and prepare their students for the future workforce. “According to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, in 2015 alone 39 states created 125 new laws, policies, or regulations concerning CTE, some of which involved the allocation of state funding” (Simmons, 2018). The desire to better prepare students for what may come after high school is also reflected here in Virginia. Virginia’s statewide “Profile of a Virginia Graduate” describes the knowledge, skills, experiences, and attributes students must attain to be successful in college and/or the workforce. “Life-ready” skills include appropriate academic and technical knowledge, workplace skills, responsible community, and civic engagement, and the ability to align personal interests with career opportunities (VDOE).
VMDO Architects has witnessed this emergence of wanting to better prepare students—academically, emotionally, and mentally—in many of our clients. We’ve had the opportunity to design CTE centers and see firsthand how these dynamic, innovative educational programs can benefit students and their communities. Most notably, we’ve worked closely with clients to develop CTE programs, curricula, and flexible learning spaces in Winchester, Arlington, Fairfax, and Charlottesville, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. As architects that specialize in happy, healthy, and high-performing learning environments, we truly believe that our work can make a positive impact in communities. As the demand for CTE programs and learning environments increases, we believe the architecture industry can play a crucial and impactful role in helping to advance the future of education.
As designers, we believe we can enhance learning spaces to better support CTE programs by:
- Designing learning spaces that are flexible and encourage teamwork
- Designing spaces that promote project-based learning and hands-on experiences
- Focusing on student-centered design
- Incorporating technology-rich offerings
- Creating spaces that allow experiential learning via simulating real-world environments (workshop space, laboratories, healthcare rooms, etc.)
- Working closely with community partners to create the collaboration necessary for CTE centers to thrive
- Assisting schools via educational planning to ensure the CTE center integrates traditional academic curricula with the CTE curriculum
VMDO has instilled these design philosophies in numerous projects, including the recently completed Shihadeh Innovation Center in Winchester Public Schools (WPS). The local high school, John Handley, had reached maximum capacity and could not accommodate additional growth. Additionally, there were no local facilities that supported CTE programs. As Winchester considered a school redesign, the Superintendent, Mr. Jason Van Heukelum, identified that the district needed to better support its students. He shared that only a third of WPS students pursue postsecondary education after graduating from high school, and of those students, only 20% go on to graduate from a four-year institution. Therefore, he sought to re-imagine how WPS could better support all students and provide them with the training and technical skills needed upon graduation. With his vision and strong support from the school board, local employers, and other partnerships the Emil + Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center emerged.
As a radical transformation of an existing unused elementary school, the mission of the Center is to ensure that every student is prepared and empowered with a marketable skill that leads to full, high-paying employment and that every regional industry is fully supplied with dedicated workers that will sustain and improve their business model. A joint venture with Lord Fairfax Community College and local industry partners, the Shihadeh Innovation Center is a hub of workforce development for the community. Using hands-on learning strategies, students will develop the necessary skills that lead to marketable certifications. Industry partners play an active role in the development of the program of study, while also committing to work-based learning opportunities for students. Lord Fairfax Community College provides instructors and equipment for certification and credit-bearing courses. Funding for the Shihadeh Innovation Center came from a mix of private and public donations, as well as skills and labor donated by local businesses.
Organized around three academies, Professional Skills, Health Sciences, and Information Technology, each offers specialized programs featuring high-intensity trades and professional skills labs, a health sciences suite, and STEAM lab spaces that support cybersecurity, digital design, robotics, and computer technology. Every Handley High School student will cycle through the Innovation Center at some point during their high school career. This exposure was intentional, ensuring every student has access to innovative programming and the opportunity to explore CTE curricula. The Shihadeh program supports what students learn in their traditional high school, and expands to hands-on, project-based learning and application opportunities they otherwise would not receive.
Currently underway in Fairfax, VA, where the community identified a need to provide more career and professional development opportunities to its constituents is, The Original Mount Vernon Historic High School project. VMDO is in the process of transforming the historic building into the community resource of “The Original Mount Vernon Lifetime Center.” With a mission to create career pathways, connect individuals across generational gaps, and integrate residents into the local Virginia economy, the high school building was preserved and revitalized to transform into a community-centered campus.
In collaboration with the Fairfax County client team, VMDO identified four guiding principles for this important community destination:
- Build Communities of Opportunities by placing emphasis on flexible, incubator spaces that draw people to gather and collaborate.
- Create Career Pathways through partnerships with private, public, and non-profit firms to offer career counseling and training.
- Connect Different Generations with vibrant “contact zones”, where different generations can come together in a number of ways.
- Better Integrate Residents into the Economy by enhancing their lives and skill sets in numerous ways.
Before undertaking the building design, a programming and planning phase sought to explore how space can best promote the identified principles. The design team organized the programmatic features of this building by using three clear building anchors, the theater, the library, and the gym. Connecting the pillars of the design are sets of entertaining, studious, and physically-minded spaces that help create activity zones. This configuration establishes a truly multi-functional building that can provide concurrent programming throughout the day.
A collective of sophisticated, non-profit partners will deliver varied services within the site, bringing to the community strategic, focused support in various aspects of their livelihood. By providing members of the community with access to resources and services that they would otherwise not have, the new “third space” facility will open the door for residents to a better and brighter future.
Another unique project VMDO is leading is within the 1950s-era Spingarn High School Campus, located in the District of Columbia. The VMDO DC / BELL Architects team was chosen to lead the programming and design necessary to modernize the Spingarn High School building to serve as the new home of the DC Infrastructure Academy (DCIA) which trains, screens, and recruits DC residents to provide direct pathways to jobs with leading companies. Construction is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country, amplified by the passage of the $550 billion Federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill in 2021. Recognizing the significance of these trades, the District of Columbia has partnered with private enterprises to develop workforce training focused on employment opportunities in energy, construction, and information technology.
Key to the project is the historic significance of the Spingarn site. The school was constructed in 1951 as a dedicated facility for African American students to relieve overcrowding at other segregated high schools in the District. As such, Spingarn is considered to be the District’s last newly built segregated high school; in fact, the process of desegregation began only two years after its opening. In those days, Spingarn’s curriculum focused on life skills including home economics, trade workshops, and laboratories. Although the school was closed and abandoned in 2013, its community role has made it a natural predecessor for the new DC Infrastructure Academy.
The new Academy is set to make a significant contribution to the local economy and offer promising opportunities for D.C. residents.
Different from the other VMDO CTE focused projects is the new Woodrow W. Bolick Advanced Technology + Student Success Center (ATSSC) at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC), which will serve as a vibrant hub for academic life at a higher education institution. Slated for completion by winter 2024, the ATSSC creates a campus destination that considers the diverse needs of today's community college students, while also inspiring a sense of connection. The building includes advanced manufacturing and robotics, cyber-security and forensics labs, instructional spaces, administrative offices, a café, student group spaces, and improved outdoor public spaces. The project will fulfill a vision of a central pedestrian campus landscape, the building will serve as a new visual landmark from nearby Interstate 64, showcasing PVCC's comprehensive commitment to workforce training and career development for the region.
The ATSSC is composed of three interconnected volumes: the pavilion, the portal, and the academic/advising wing. The pavilion houses a large multi-purpose event space, café, student lounge, student organization offices, and quiet study spaces. Given the public nature of the pavilion, emphasis has been placed on transparency between the various spaces and between interior spaces and the campus beyond. The exterior of the pavilion is a collage of both solid and visually transparent assemblies that react to views, solar orientation, and adjacent landscape spaces.
In Loudoun County Virginia, designed by Rob Winstead while with another firm, The Academies of Loudoun (AoL) is a unique and innovative approach to STEM learning that leverages the common goals, instructional content, and learning-by-doing nature of CTE and STEM curricula into a highly flexible setting focused on the multiple imperatives of 21st Century learning and skills development. AoL was envisioned by the LCPS as a state-of-the-art center for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) learning that combines current high school programs in career and technical education (Monroe Advanced Technical Academy), advanced math and science research instruction (Academy of Science), with a new program, focused on engineering and computer science (Academy of Engineering and Technology). From an instructional standpoint, the Academies of Loudoun represents a significant investment in – and an innovative approach to –the future of learning at the K-12 level. AoL is a reflection of an increasingly relevant model of learning where content and student experience are more intentional and informed by the specific advances and needs of our economy.
Through a series of client meetings, facility tours, workshops, and utilization analyses, Rob and the design team worked with instructional leadership to develop a vision and detailed program for the new facility. The work resulted in a shared commitment to re-imagining the new building’s space needs less in terms of traditional content, and more in terms of learning activity - shifting the focus from what was being taught to how students would learn. The four guiding principles for planning and designing the building focused on creating a culture of interdependence, intentional trans-disciplinary spaces, technology and engineering touching all programs, and celebrating the learning process through visibility and exposure.
The compact three-story structure was designed to support agility and adaptability and enhance transdisciplinary collaboration. Technology-rich commons and breakout areas are located at major intersections to encourage serendipitous interactions. Double-height spaces and vegetated courtyards provide unexpected views and connections between programs. A variety of labs and studios are organized to maximize flexibility as well as daylight and views of the surrounding landscape. A rigorous planning module, along with flexible furniture and equipment, allows the building to adapt as programs evolve.
These are just a few of many projects across the nation that are providing better support to students for their futures. Among many proven ways to better support students, CTE programs help to prepare students for the workforce and the demands of their -K-12 or postsecondary lives. We see a desire from many of our clients to offer more CTE programs and would like to help them actualize their greatest hopes for their students and communities. The entire architecture industry can play a vital role in helping to provide career readiness opportunities to students and encourage this early exposure to hands-on, project-based learning. We feel these programs have a high likelihood of success because they ensure every student is well prepared for their future. Through our work as designers, we continue to support healthy learning environments that provide opportunities for all students and help to set them up for success in their future careers. Ultimately, we aim to support and invest in our educational systems, both traditional and career readiness programs, to uplift and advance the future of our workforce.
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