Lab Celebrates Upcoming New Building

Photo by Brian Kapur/The Current
The Lab School held a groundbreaking ceremony yesterday for its new high school wing, which will help it ease a space crunch.
The Lab School held a groundbreaking ceremony yesterday for its new high school wing, which will help it ease a space crunch.

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

High school students at the Lab School of Washington face learning difficulties like dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that can make it challenging to follow a normal curriculum. But they also face the additional challenges of a cramped, aging school building, where former dormitories serve as classrooms and students regularly have to work in the hall.

The school took a step toward addressing its facilities needs yesterday afternoon, hosting a groundbreaking ceremony for a new high school wing on its 4759 Reservoir Road campus. The school band performed as students in hard hats turned over dirt next to a small building that will be torn down to make way for a three-story, 30,000-square-foot facility, slated to open in early 2016.

The new wing along Whitehaven Parkway — plus a new story added to an existing arts building on campus — will provide new amenities and much more space for high-schoolers, and it will also free up room for the middle-schoolers to spread out into the former high school space.

“This is a dream we’ve all had, and it’s a dream that’s about to come true,” Mimi Dawson, chair of Lab’s board of trustees, said at yesterday’s ceremony.

In an interview, head of school Katherine Schantz said the goal of the $16 million project isn’t to boost student capacity from the current enrollment of 127. Rather, the facility is meant to better serve the students’ unique academic needs, as well as the special traits that lead many to excel in the fields of art and design.

“We’re really trying to design a school space for kids who learn and think differently, and so we want a space that’s very innovative and responsive to the kind of creative thinkers that they are,” she said.

The 17 new classrooms were designed with flexibility in mind, to let teachers adapt them to different lessons. There will be two “makerspace” areas where students will be able to tinker as they flesh out ideas in different ways. There will be more science labs, a second music studio, an upgraded and expanded theater, and additional visual arts studio space.

Besides having more room within each classroom, Schantz said the expansion will provide students with a variety of places to work in keeping with their own learning styles — for instance, those seeking solitude will be able to get a respite from crowds of classmates.

At the ceremony, Schantz and several students also spoke of even more basic improvements that will come with the new high school facility. Heat and air conditioning will work reliably. Lockers will have room for musical instruments and athletics equipment. Classrooms will have modern communications technology. Students won’t be left working in the hallway.

“At lunch when we’re all at our lockers, we can barely move,” eighth-grader Anika Eigen-Zucchi said at the event. But once the high school moves to the new building, “junior high will be a well-oiled machine, running comfortably and smoothly.”

Schantz said the Lab School is committed to working with neighboring residents and schools to make sure the construction process also goes smoothly. The school is posting project-material and construction updates online, as well as information about regular community meetings that discuss construction issues. The material is available at tinyurl.com/lab-expansion-dc.

Extensive traffic and parking management policies are part of the January Board of Zoning Adjustment order that allows construction to move forward, including mandates for providing shuttle bus service, leasing parking from a nearby CVS, and continuously monitoring the traffic situation.

The new construction will replace two vacant single-family homes owned by the school that front Whitehaven. The school has begun disconnecting utilities to prepare for razing these structures, which Schantz said will likely take about two months. Full-scale construction will begin once that process is complete, and it will last until about January 2016.

The school is working to raise $10 million in private donations by the end of this year to help finance the project; so far it has collected more than $6 million toward that goal, board of trustees member Davis Camalier said at the ceremony, expressing confidence that Lab will reach it.

This article appears in the Oct. 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.