Dallas South News Wire (University of North Texas at Dallas)
A metal, undulating ceiling; an elevated area called the “perch” made of fiber-cement-board panels from Europe; Italian marble in the bathrooms; and a stage with a wall that opens up to an outdoor amphitheater.
Miles from the arts district in downtown Dallas, construction crews are busy finishing the city’s newest showplace to open by the first of August. It’s not a hotel, museum or convention center. It is the Dallas Independent School District’s new Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy—named after the DISD’s first female African-American board member—and when adults see it, they are going to want to go back to high school.
Strategically located on the northeast edge of the campus of the University of North Texas at Dallas, leaders hope the location will boost the number of students who graduate and go to college.
“We want to do everything we can to create a smooth path for students in this area to succeed in finishing high school and college,” said UNT Dallas President John Ellis Price. “We’ve even thought about building a walking path from our current buildings to the high school’s campus.”
Students at Gilliam and the DISD’s other two “early college high schools” complete grades nine through 12 while completing as much as 60 hours of college credit simultaneously. The program is specifically geared for public school students who would be first-generation college students.
Gilliam Principal Gayle Ferguson Smith said it was ideal for the new high school to be located adjacent the city’s first public, four-year university.
“The location really worked out. We will be partnering with them and sharing some services. I’m looking to take advantage of some of the tutoring services that they provide. We’re looking for a smooth transition because we do want many of our students to attend UNT Dallas.”
Construction began 12 months ago on the $21.5 million, 110,000 square-foot facility. Funding for the school came from a $1.35 billion bond election in 2008. The man in charge of construction, Paul Arden with Satterfield & Pontikes Construction, said the district got a great building for the money.
“For this day and age, I think they got an exceptional building for $22 million, multi-use, and it’s an art form also. To be honest with you, you could probably add another $10 million if the economy was better, but because of the times, everything was cheap.”
But cheap doesn’t mean poor quality. Arden and his crews are proud of the building they’ve built.
“It’s definitely a cornerstone project for the whole district,” Arden said. “There’s a lot of high-end finishes in here you would not normally see in a high school. It’s something to be proud of.”
On Aug. 22, 350 students will join 15 teachers at the school. They can’t wait to move in and take advantage of the wonderful facilities, Smith said.
In the school’s temporary location at Nolan Estes Plaza on I-35E, there were few windows, lots of stairs and dimly lit hallways. Smith said it will be “awesome to be able to get sunlight during the day.” Unlike their temporary location, students also will have access to a gym, outdoor recreational facilities, a library and spaces that enhance learning.
The long, open building will be easier for adults to monitor the students, too. From the entrance area, one can see almost all of the movement in the building. Other areas will be under video surveillance, such as the outdoor fenced-in “porch” area at the far end of the building where students can enjoy the trees on the campus.
During a recent tour, Arden led Smith and several school staff around the building as crews continued working around them. The school features 25 classrooms, all of which are on the north side of the atrium with views of the Dallas skyline. The wireless building has two computer labs, a “Go Center” (a resource room to help students with college and scholarship applications staffed by UNT Dallas students), a lecture hall/theater and an amphitheater.
But the most impressive part is the large atrium that includes dining space, a commons area and a unique structure at the far end called the “perch.” Above the library, the perch is a collaboration space housing meeting rooms and offices for teachers, the school counselor and associate principals.
“Nobody has this, but again it’s to have more of a college feel and prepare those students so the transition will be very easy from high school into college,” Smith said. “It’s like a student union at a university.
The building meets CHIPs (Criteria for High Performance schools) requirements, which is similar to the now-popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The carpet is made of recycled content. There are few VOCs (volatile organic compounds—the bad stuff that gives you cancer), and lots of sustainable materials such as bamboo, daylight controls and geothermal cooling and heating.
A refrigerant in the air conditioning system will run into 300-feet deep holes on the property where the earth will cool it in the summer and warm it in the winter. “It’s very efficient. It keeps the energy costs down,” Arden said.
The building was designed to look like a college campus, said project architect Amy King with SHW Group in Dallas. “It’s amazing. It’s definitely a step up from typical high schools around here. It’s inspiring, especially getting to see the kids’ faces as they enter the building and interact.”
If there is an architectural theme to the building, King said, it’s “easing the transition from high school to college and making you more aware of free time, free space, making you feel okay with achieving higher learning.” That is the goal for the entire program, Principal Smith said.
All DISD students “have access to the dual credit, but the difference is our program offers support. We’re walking with them hand in hand, step by step along the way providing intensive support so when they are on their own at the college level, they will be ready,” Smith added.
This was King’s fifth high school to design, but her firm has designed hundreds or more. Does this building seem special? “Yes it does,” King said. “I would say I was very fortunate to have worked on this amazing building. It is one that we will probably do case studies on and follow for future schools.”
At a groundbreaking ceremony April 23, 2010, Alma Garcia, program officer with the Texas High School Project, said the school will serve as a model for schools around the state. Her organization promotes public-private partnerships to develop early college high schools.
UNT Dallas, the DISD, the Dallas County Community College District and the AT&T Foundation are partners in the early college high school program. In 2009, the AT&T Foundation provided a $1 million gift to establish a scholarship fund for students who enroll in UNT Dallas after graduating from early college high schools.