When Mt. Lebanon High School history and government teacher Pete DiNardo talks to students about visiting colleges, he suggests they go in May, when the sun comes out and the quads are filled with students tossing Frisbees or reading books. In that cheerful atmosphere, students can get a true sense of the school’s energy, he says: “We love when the sun comes out.”
Finally, the sun is out, too, at Mt. Lebanon High School, energizing students in redesigned spaces where light is one of the stars of a massive renovation that took 10 years of planning and construction. At a cost of $109.6 million, the project is in the top 1 percent of school packages in Pennsylvania.
DiNardo says that people matter first when providing a stellar education, but creating the proper environment also is critical. “The physical place can’t create excellence but it can facilitate this,” he says.
In the new school, an open floor plan, reimagined educational and athletic areas and flexible spaces bring students and teachers together in new ways, eliminating many of the traditional four-wall classrooms in favor of areas that promote collaboration, creativity and fraternization. It has completely changed the culture of the school, say the people who work and study there.
“It brought everyone closer together,” says Elisabetta Croce, a former student council president who graduated in June. “We needed a building that could keep up with us.”
“I think we haven’t even tapped this building’s full potential,” says Superintendent Tim Steinhauer, who repeatedly says the renovation turned out better than he imagined. “I like the relationships that have developed between the adults and the kids,” he says. “I love having more interaction with them.”
Even though her three children have graduated and will not use the school, former PTA Council member Beth Evans considers the school district “the heart of our community.” Through her work on several advisory committees and as a former president of the high school Parent Teacher Student Association, she was involved in the project for nearly a decade, considering it from many points of view. She believes the space was well designed, stopping short of being flamboyant. “It’s not a Taj Mahal. It’s where it should be. We did not go over the top,” she says.
The public may tour the campus at an open house Sunday, October 11 starting at 2 p.m., accompanied by music and other performances.
Center Court, a two-story, light-filled indoor plaza in what was once the south gym, now is the heart of the campus. Hundreds of portable tables and chairs fill the middle of the space. Lining the walls are large flat screen TV monitors that broadcast morning announcements, CNN and event footage.
Buttressing Center Court are two critical student areas: the newly named “servery,” with food court-style stations and a composting zone, and the library, a technological marvel that rivals Barnes & Noble in scope and comfort. Overlooking the court is the much-loved AO (activities office) where students can jump into an Xbox game on a widescreen TV, sit and plan a fundraiser, coordinate volunteer activities or sign up for committees. Above another balcony are the choral and orchestra rooms and practice areas and the offices of the Devil’s Advocate, the student newspaper. The renovated auditorium, with video screens in the lobby announcing future events, is just steps away.
See the new school video:
Each of the 14 people interviewed for this story raved about Center Court, praising it for its college union-like design. Before class and during lunch, students are free to grab a plate from the servery and head to the areas that revolve around it, a move that eschews the traditional “Where’s your hall pass?” system in favor of giving students more time and freedom to work together or chill. Students come in before the school day for breakfast and nosh snacks before their after-school sports practices and activities, mingling with teachers and staff the entire while.
“That whole college campus center—I think that really affects the culture a whole lot,” says Thomas Celli, AIA, president of Celli-Flynn Brennan Architects and Planners, who designed the project along with OWP/P Associated Architects. The wash of light gives a feeling of energy. “We now appreciate that our psyche is affected by daylight.”
Gone are the old days of dark spaces designed to save on energy bills. Thanks to technological improvements in glass and efficient air conditioning, it’s cheaper and easier to heat and cool spaces bathed in natural brightness. The design is meant to create “more avant-garde teaching spaces,” to fit the way kids are taught today, Celli says. Project-based classes have for the most part replaced lecture hall learning. That may mean the teacher gives instruction, then sends groups of kids to a courtyard to work collaboratively.
“We’re OK with kids learning here in a lot of different ways,” Steinhauer says. “It doesn’t just have to be in a classroom.” That means it’s fine for kids to take a few minutes to watch life unfold in real time online and on TV. “We’re OK that kids know what’s going on.”
Flexibility is another hallmark of the design. Spaces are intended for multiple and creative uses—some of which the planners did not anticipate. For example, the “skywalk,” the glass-filled bridge linking the academic wings to the athletic building is not just a pleasant walkway but also an area for presentations, luncheons and even the prom fashion show, which has surprised everyone, including the administration.
Security was a top priority. During the school day the campus is closed to the public. Each entrance has a double set of locking doors known as a capture vestibule, with security cameras and an intercom. All areas of campus have multiple exits and cameras monitor many spaces. The Mt. Lebanon Fire and Police departments gave input throughout the project and will conduct training inside the buildings.
It was obvious that the campus needed updating. The earliest building, constructed in 1928, was expanded by five other renovations over the decades. The school had 27 different roofs, 15 on one building alone. Internal circulation was a challenge at best, with students caught in choke points on stairwells and staff carting food via elevator to four different cafeterias on different floors. Some classrooms became untenable learning spaces with 82-degree climates thanks to dysfunctional boilers. People with disabilities could not easily access all areas of the building. Wi-Fi coverage was impossible.
“You had fine arts basically in a cave in the basement,” says Croce. Although the campus was large at 545,255 square feet, no one seemed to have enough space. Dance classes had to practice in hallways, and science classes had to fight for labs.
“It was dark and dingy,” says senior Fabi Shipley.
“Everything had this yellow tinge,” echoes senior Hugh McMahon.
The word “dungeon” came up more than once.
But where to start? Work began in earnest in 2006 with educational planners DeJong-Richter, who embarked on a detailed educational space utilization study. The concept of a more vibrant center court gelled early (the addition that opened in 1972 had one but it was used infrequently), as did bringing fine arts to the center of the building, improving athletic spaces and adding a new pool. Parking and car circulation around the building had to improve, and parents needed an easy way to drop off forgotten items or pick up a sick child.
Community members participated at every turn, from an early advisory committee to large-scale public forums. After completing renovations of the two middle schools (1998) and seven elementary schools (2005), parents and staff recognized the importance of keeping the educational process as consistent and smooth as possible throughout construction. Though they may have disagreed on the scope or components of the project, they agreed strongly that kids should not have to be assigned to trailer classrooms.
With no new land to build on and projections for new construction running as high as $158 million, school board members set a plan for a phased-in, mixed renovation/new space project with a maximum cost of $113 million, a number that did not require a referendum. The $109.6 final cost would be paid for with two bonds: a $75 million bond in 2009, and a $35 million bond issued in 2013. The renovation generated $659,110 in building permit fees for the municipality. Additionally, the district expects to receive $2 million in state reimbursement.
The nature of renovating the building with students in place drove up the cost of the project. Celli estimates it added at least $10 million to the cost to build in phases and avoid temporary classrooms. Administrators suggest, however, that the district’s state school performance profile stayed steady, 99.5 in 2012-13 and 99.3 in 2013-14, in large part because students were not displaced.
The design challenge of the smaller, more agile 454,817-square-foot project was how to make the buildings fit together. It needed to allow top-of-the-line tech integration to bring the Internet into learning spaces and make the campus, which serves 1,800 students and a staff of 200, into both a community center and a source of continuing value for homeowners.
In 2007, the board selected its architects and in 2008 hired construction manager PJ Dick. Then-superintendent John Allison lead a community forum in 2008, and the project was solidified. Buildings A (1928) and C (1972) would be demolished. Building B (1930, the historical building along Cochran Road) would be renovated, as would parts of D (1972), E (1955—the auditorium) and F (1972—the fine arts theater). The project would add academic building G, containing the science wings, and an athletic building with a competitive gym, eight-lane, 25-yard pool, two auxiliary gyms, locker rooms and fitness facilities. Classrooms would be a minimum of 800 square feet. Large group instructioin rooms would be sprinkled throughout the project, and the science wing would include many “trios”—two instructional spaces bookending a lab.
Construction began after a January 2012 groundbreaking, with spaces opening to students as they were completed. Although some work remains, students were in all parts by this past spring.
School board president Larry Lebowitz says the sheer complexity of the project was the biggest challenge. The construction went smoothly, with the exception of some issues with new floors in the gym and some geotechnical adjustments that had to be made while doing foundation work. “I am so pleased because I get really positive feedback from residents, and community members are just thrilled,” he says. Despite some community pushback early in the project, he adds, the board stayed on course “because they knew that our kids deserve it. “
Steinhauer credits Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Ron Davis, Director of Facilities Rick Marciniak and High School Principal Brian McFeeley for their roles in keeping the project on track, which required, among other things, constantly tweaking schedules to minimize disruption amid backhoes, drills and cranes.
The new layout required new paradigms. Steinhauer was talking with the custodians, who were perplexed about how the new Center Court area was going to work. Normally, after the last lunch period, the cafeteria closes and they would clean it. Steinhauer paused and said: “This space never closes.” That can be said of the entire campus, since 62 percent of after-hours use is by community members for activities such as adult education, swim classes and Rec Department sports.
The design also gives students more flexibility, which can mean more opportunity to misbehave. But Principal Brian McFeeley says, “So far, so good.”
“It feels like (it’s) a revitalization of Mt. Lebanon,” McMahon says. “I think when you improve a school, it improves the community.” Shipley agrees. “The facilities are of the same level as the programming.”
Resident Joe Smith, a volunteer on the school district’s capital campaign whose own daughters graduated from Mt. Lebanon, says the new learning environment is wonderful. “The depth and the immediacy of the education, because they have all these tools, are just incredible.” Smith, a banker, also says the worth of the school is having a positive effect on the prices of houses, which are in high demand. “People want to get into that community.”
Students can enter the building from Cochran Road, but the main entrance is a new two-way plaza on Horsman Drive. Students approach Center Court on a grand staircase, surrounded by inspirational quotes from Churchill, Lincoln and Mandela. The central administration office is on the north end of the building. Counselors and the health and attendance offices are clustered on the south end near the parking lot. The principal’s office is near the Horsman entrance. Parking is available in the south lot and in spaces on Horsman Drive.
Bringing fine arts to the campus’ core has worked well. “The arts have a positive effect on the culture of the high school,” says dance teacher CeCe Kapron, who came to Mt. Lebanon in the fall of 1972. “Everyone is constantly passing through the arts section [now].” Two new dance studios have mirrors, barres and sprung floors to limit pounding on dancers’ bones. Students now can change into dance attire in small rooms adjacent to the studios instead of down the hall in the restrooms, wasting valuable instruction time.
“How thrilling to be in a district that values their arts as much as Mt. Lebanon,” says Kapron, who hopes that seeing the arts in action in the campus’ core will attract even more students to participate. “The arts bring life to life. It’s that enthusiasm that arts create.”
Both the fine arts theater and the auditorium received handicap accessibility upgrades. Their seats and sound systems have been redone and their curtains replaced. Arts classes are in two-story rooms that used to be the old pool. Natural light floods the space, which includes a balcony.
The centrally located library is modern, with comfortable places to plop on cushions and read by the light of large windows. No longer a repository of books, its open design includes short bookcases with a clear view across the room and an adjacent courtyard for group study. “Literally, it’s the difference between day and night,” says librarian Christy Smith, who has taught in Mt. Lebanon for 17 years. “It makes you happy to be in here.” You might expect lots of computers—and there are some, including kiosks of desktops, carts of Chromebooks and iPads and an adjacent computer lab—but it’s also designed to work well with a student’s own technology, whether it’s a smartphone, laptop or tablet. “It’s a flexible space that we can transform to be whatever it needs to be,” Smith says. “It’s a refuge. This is a place where they can get answers to anything.”
Renovated spaces hold a state-of-the-art TV studio with editing bays and a tech ed department with 3D printers. Private practice rooms surround the music department. And one of the best vistas on campus is from the fitness center atop the athletic building, with a view of the stadium.
McFeeley believes it will take years for the staff to realize the full potential of the building. “I can’t even imagine what we’ll be doing 10 years from now.”
For his part, DiNardo, who has taught for 18 years in Mt. Lebanon, loves the openness, which promotes communication among faculty. “There’s clearly a sense of brightness, joy and vitality, if you will.” But for him, a simple thing also means a lot: His room has a closet with a hook for his jacket. “I’m a professional now.”