By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
The walls have been color-coded by grade, a parking garage roof has been converted into a jungle gym and the ribbon has been cut – and on Tuesday, Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School welcomed its first students.
The new school represents a successful experiment for Alexandria City Public Schools in innovation and collaboration.
ACPS, contending with increasingly overcrowded elementary schools, limited funding and a shortage of available real estate in the city, created the school by repurposing a vacant office building on the city’s West End.
The new school was a new type of collaboration between ACPS and the City of Alexandria, as the scale of the partnership was much larger than the organizations have undertaken in recent years.
“This is an example of city and schools working together to make a product like this, and I can tell you all, if we can keep this going in the City of Alexandria, this collaboration, [then] the sky’s the limit,” Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said at the school’s ribbon cutting on Aug. 30.
“I hope people remember this day,” he said, “because there will be future schools. Our capacity is growing … but it’s innovative approaches like this, taking an office building and turning it into a school, which makes it a huge gem.”
ACPS purchased the vacant West End office building at 1701 N. Beauregard St. in spring 2017 and received city council’s approval to begin the renovation project in September of that year. Since then, the project has had its challenges.
One of the biggest roadblocks came when Interim Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin, Ed.D., rescinded her appointment of John B. Murphy as principal after allegations of his misconduct in previous school leadership positions surfaced. Within a few months of the misfire, however, Rachael Dischner, a former ACPS employee, was named the new principal, and has since played a large role in the physical and instructional design process for Ferdinand T. Day.
ACPS and the city also faced the time crunch of having to complete the project by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. Despite the tight deadline, Hutchings said a relatively smooth and collaborative effort meant the school was able to open its doors to students on time.
When students walked into their new elementary school’s halls on the first day of school on Tuesday morning, they were greeted by brand new classrooms, top-notch facilities, creative amenities and state-of-theart technology.
As part of ACPS’ redistricting implementation, Ferdinand T. Day will not be at full capacity for two years. This school year, the school only welcomed students in kindergarten through third grade. The structure of the redistricting is intended to allow fourth and fifth graders to remain at the schools they attended last year, and as a result, enrollment this year is only at 450, while the school’s maximum capacity is just under 700.
“When we redistricted, we allowed our fourth and fifth graders to stay in their current schools and not have to transition sharply into a new school at those critical grades, so that’s why we’re going to transition after,” ACPS Director of Communications Helen Lloyd said.
The office-building-turned-elementary-school is laid out to make the most of a vertically structured learning space. The first floor is home to most shared facilities, such as the cafeteria, physical activity space and music room, while the three stories above it house two grade levels per floor. The top two floors of the six-story office building are not part of the elementary school, but will eventually become ACPS administrative offices.
Despite the building’s multi-level structure and high-traffic location on North Beauregard Street, the halls aren’t incredibly different from an ordinary elementary school. In fact, some aspects of repurposing an office building turned out to be beneficial.
“There is a significant amount of daylight in this building,” Hord Coplan Macht Architect Katie Sanders said. “This is nothing that I as an architect had any part in. It was just a really good situation to come into. … One of the other really nice features about where this building is sited is that we’ve got nice tree cover behind the building.”
“It makes you feel like you’re in a tree house,” Dischner added.
To help students find their way through similar looking floors, each grade level is assigned a color that is woven throughout the design of each grade’s learning spaces, from subtle splashes of colored tiles to more eye-catching, boldly painted walls.
“The architects were really thoughtful in the process about way-finding for the kids with four different floors,” Dischner said. “For some of the kids, they may look very similar when you get off, but if they know their classroom is blue, they’re going to keep going upstairs until they see the blue line on the floor. There are a lot of purposeful things done with color.”
Each grade level also features extended learning areas in the halls outside their classrooms.
“These are areas where small groups can come out and do some work,” Sanders said. “We … have a writable surface along this wall so we can do some teaching out here, and then really fun, flexible furniture, so this is a nice way to make your circulation space more functional and useable.”
Flexible furniture can be found throughout the building to allow for maximum functionality of all features: the same desk where a student can read alone can be added to other desks to form a collaborative, circular table; the ledge in the media center that acts as seat for a third grader becomes a desk for a first grader.
“The furniture was very intentional to increase efforts for collaboration with the students,” Dischner said.
Another intentional effort the architects made while designing the school was ensuring every classroom was technology friendly. Technology will be a key learning tool at the school, since it will follow a STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – focused curriculum.
Every classroom in the school is equipped with a smart board and document camera, and each grade level has access to a different type of technology. Kindergarten classrooms will have iPads, first and second grade classrooms will have laptop carts and the upper levels – grades three, four and five – will have personal devices for each student.
The school’s design also pays homage to its namesake, Ferdinand T. Day.
The lobby of the school features a seven by 22 foot timeline dedicated to Day, a civil rights leader who was elected to the Alexandria City School Board just 10 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and who became the first African American to be elected chair of a public school board in Virginia.
The timeline, designed in-house by ACPS’ office of communications, lays out Ferdinand T. Day’s story in the context of Alexandria’s and America’s civil rights history. Black and white photos with varying outlines – blue for Day, yellow for national events and green for Alexandria – can be read as individual histories or together as one big timeline.
A ribbon cutting ceremony took place Aug. 30 in front of the timeline in the Ferdinand T. Day lobby. Born on Aug. 7, 1918, Day would’ve been 100 years old the same month as the school’s ribbon cutting.
City and school leaders were in attendance at the event, in addition to several of Ferdinand T. Day’s relatives, including his daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I think education was his first love, and he fought to be sure that it was equitable and available for all,” Day’s daughter, Gwen Day-Fuller, said. “I am humbled to see his name on this building, but I strongly believe deep down inside that he deserved it. He was part of the bravest generation, and his dedication, love, passion and drive have brought us all to this momentous occasion today.”
Day’s great-granddaughters, Imani Christou-Fuller, 12, Chloe Christou-Fuller, 10, and Brianna Gwendolyn Ringer, 10, travelled from Boston to join their grandmother in cutting the ribbon.
“It’s really exciting because my great-grandfather was actually my favorite relative of all time,” Chloe Cristou-Fuller said. “It makes me very happy that they’re naming a school after him where a lot of children can come here and learn.”
Hutchings concluded the program by saying without people like Day, a black man like him wouldn’t have been named the new superintendent of ACPS.
“Mr. Day has paved the way for me to stand here today,” Hutchings said. “It was because of a person like Mr. Day who was able to move, by trajectory, integration into all of our schools. That could not have been possible without his leadership, without his guidance, without his strength and his tenacity to be able to come out and really lead.”