May Whitney, New Elementary School

May Whitney, one of the oldest structures in Lake Zurich, was originally constructed in 1929 as a high school with the large two-story brick masonry building. It served that purpose until Lake Zurich High School opened in 1974. It served as a middle school from 1975 to 2004, when it began use as an elementary school.

As with many older facilities, the building required annual maintenance and replacements of building systems along with asbestos abatement and functional challenges. The second floor of the old high school area and the basement locker rooms were unhabitable and being used for storage. The time had come to invest significant dollars in an existing older building or replace it with a new elementary school. The community opted for the latter via a referendum ballot decision in 2018.

The new May Whitney Elementary school is a 5-section school serving Pre k-5th grade. The building has the potential to house 910 students and is approximately 119,000 square feet.

Concentric layers were a theme for the design, with communal spaces at the core. Each grade radiates from these centralized spaces creating separation. To create an identity for each grade and aid in wayfinding, graphics were incorporated that play off themes of shape and color. Each wing has the same resources.

An elementary school of this size could be daunting for children, but care was taken to create the cozy intimacy of a bi-level home. The radiating wings are relatively short. There are direct lines of sight from the Common Areas down each main academic wing, concluding with views to the outdoors at the end of each corridor.

The design provokes spatial thinking by keying the exterior facades to the wayfinding cues inside the building.
Sustainable features like the Geothermal System provide opportunities to use the building itself as a teaching tool.
The design takes full advantage of the sloping site to create a welcoming scale and kept the project within budget.
Color gives each wing its own identity. The colors come together in the common areas to celebrate the whole community.
The variety of color creates a visually stimulating environment that aids in wayfinding and represents the diversity of the community.

Visioning Workshops indicated that the new school should be a FLEXIBLE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT in support of PERSONALIZED LEARNING, CREATIVITY, and COLLABORATION. These objectives were met by designing a multitude of learning environments that support differentiated learning.

  • The Learning Studios are flexible and adaptable. Each also has access to a Small Group Breakout.
  • Nooks in the corridors welcome students to study independently.
  • The Project Space is designed to host a variety of creative activities and includes a sink for easy cleanup.
  • In the larger and more robust Makerspace children can solve more complex problems that require deep, sustained attention. With power pull-downs and wardrobes for project storage, it’s here they can engage in iterative thinking.
  • In the Large Group Presentation Space, two classrooms can gather to watch a guest speaker or brainstorm together on the writable-surface walls.
  • The Learning Amphitheater is a cozy spot for activities like story time.
  • Students demonstrate their knowledge and skills to a large audience in the Cafetorium, which is suitable for musical or theatrical performances or assemblies.
The existing school and adjacent high school continued operation during construction. That meant coordinating construction squeezed between two functioning schools.
Early learners have their own Motor Skills Hub to support both structured and unstructured physical activity for large motor development. 
The site allowed the scale of the Pre-K wing to be less intimidating. Whimsical, child-height windows playfully welcome early learners.
Creativity and collaboration are celebrated throughout. Visibility into the spaces instills a vibrant atmosphere of learning happening all around you.
The graphics and themes of shape and color are also present at the secure entries, enhancing children’s sense of place.
Children often sort/group by color; it’s easy to differentiate and remember. Here, color identifies each grade and aids in wayfinding.
Designed for flexibility, the Learning Studios with Breakout Rooms allow many configurations for formal or informal individual and group learning.
An ideal spot for story time, the Learning Amphitheater is used formally or informally for gathering, teaching, socializing, or performing.
The design incorporates graphics that play off themes of shape and color with biophilic patterns to connect students to nature.
Students in the highly flexible Project Space collaborate with others and “learn by doing.”

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