By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Students rushed through the doors of the new Patrick Henry School with smiles on their faces and a spring in their steps on Jan. 22, their first day in the newly redeveloped kindergarten through eighth grade school.
The Patrick Henry School and Recreation Center is the result of a joint project between the city and Alexandria City Public Schools that was years in the making. Plans were put in place almost five years ago, amid considerable controversy about the project’s design and resulting traffic flow in the surrounding neighborhood. Once started, construction took 18 months.
“It was a lot of hard work, but our children deserve it,” Principal Ingrid Bynum said. “It was good work.”
This is the first project of this scope to come out of the joint partnership between the city and ACPS. Despite its origin as two projects that were being developed separately by the city and ACPS, by the time city council saw the plans in 2016, the Patrick Henry School and Rec Center was a collaborative development designed to maximize space and cut down on construction costs.
“It’s something that we haven’t done before and I think it’s an example of how we’re working closer with the city on our capital improvement projects,” Helen Lloyd, director of communications for ACPS, said.
The results of that partnership are two vastly expanded 21st century facilities.
“Looking at the old school, I like to use ‘rags to riches’ here. You’re really going from your 1950s school to state of the art,” Paul May, senior project manager for ACPS, said.
With 136,651 square feet, the new school can hold 900 kindergarten through eighth grade students, a sizable increase from the old building’s 650 pre-K through fifth grade student capacity. Come September, when seventh graders move up a grade, Patrick Henry will also be the second kindergarten through eighth grade school in Alexandria after Jefferson-Houston School.
“We have more than doubled the amount of floor space from the old school but we’re going to end up with actual more open space when all is said and done,” May said.
According to May, the school takes full advantage of that space. New 1,200 square foot classrooms with floor- to-ceiling windows fill the school’s three floors and are a change of pace from the cramped, dimly lit classrooms in the old building, May said. The school also has several art labs, science labs and music rooms.
Outside of the classrooms, the new building includes an expanded parking lot with 155 parking spaces, a Tot Lot, an early childhood garden, a cafetorium, a black box theater for special performances and a full gymnasium.
Meanwhile, the rec center expanded from 9,000 to 19,035 square feet and houses a flex court, indoor track, craft room and multi-purpose rooms for community-led classes.
As part of the partnership, the Patrick Henry School will share the gym, black box theater and a multipurpose room with the rec center. Shared spaces are reserved for school use until 4:30 p.m. but are open to the community after school hours.
The $62.8 million joint development project was approved by city council in December 2016, broke ground on June 22, 2017, and received its occupancy permit on Jan. 15, 2019. However, the path to this point wasn’t without issue.
Throughout both the school board and city council’s deliberations in 2016, community members and residents expressed very specific concerns: ensuring student safety, minimizing traffic and maintaining the site’s open space.
Concerns over student safety were generally assuaged in the final design plan, but many residents are still concerned about a reduction in open space and an increase in traffic and congestion on the residential North Latham Street due to a new parking lot entrance and exit. The parking lot entrance and exit now sit off of Taney Avenue, and a new bus loop is on North Latham Street.
While some members of the community remain concerned about the effects of the new school, those who are in the school are excited.
“The first day when we came to this building we went back [to the old building] as a staff and we realized at that point just how much we didn’t like that building,” Bynum said. “It was dark, it was old.”
With more dynamic learning spaces and several quality of life additions, the new school is built around allowing faculty and staff to execute on what makes Patrick Henry different, Bynum said.
The numerous performance spaces are the result of Patrick Henry’s focus on the arts. Each hallway will be named after a college, an intentional choice to embody the school’s motto – “work harder to get smarter” – and its stated mission.
“We really are very much into the mindset of pushing children to persevere now so that they can get through to go to college,” Bynum said.
Francis Hammond Middle School has more course offerings and larger classes, and parents can choose to send their children there after fifth grade. However, the smaller, more nurturing learning environment at Patrick Henry is just as valuable for ACPS, Lloyd said.
“We’ve known them since first grade, so we know everything about them. We’re connected to their families, they know our expectations,” Bynum said.
When the doors first opened on Jan. 22, the students entered a new learning space that exceeded their expectations.
“I thought that maybe it was going to be a nice building, but I didn’t know there was going to be this much space and that we would have all this modern technology,” Amina Sharif, a sixth grader, said.
Sharif and several other students admitted that they missed the old school more for the memories they made in it than for the building itself. But while the new school was a bit overwhelming at first, new lockers, desks and spaces eased the transition.
For other students, the new school was empowering.
“When you walk into your new classroom it makes you want to utilize everything there,” Nour Khachnaoui, a sixth grader at Patrick Henry, said. “Before, in the old school, we didn’t really use the library, but when we saw [the new library] we wanted to just sit on the carpet and read a book.”
Although work on the new building is done, the project still isn’t finished. As the next phase of the project begins, the old school building will be leveled and replaced by additional parking, a synthetic turf field, basketball court and three playgrounds. The fields will also be shared spaces.
For Bynum, as well as her teachers and students, an upgraded Patrick Henry is the foundation for better learning moving forward.
“We’ve been calling ourselves the Jeffersons,” Bynum said. “We’re moving on up.”