There’s a new educational concept for Loudoun County that’s been talked about—dreamed about—for more than a decade. Next week it becomes a reality.
On Thursday, the county opens the Academies of Loudoun, the largest and most expensive school building it’s ever funded, built with the goal of giving students all the tools they need to not only excel in tomorrow’s workforce but to help shape it.
“Welcome to our brand new building,” Principal Tinnell Priddy said this week, the words echoing through what she referred to as the building’s “grand entrance.”
The massive, 315,000-square-foot building sits on 119-acre wooded acres along Sycolin Road between Leesburg and Ashburn. It will be home to three magnet programs: the Academy of Science, which has operated out of a wing of Dominion High School for 13 years; Monroe Technology Center under the new name Monroe Advanced Technical Academy, which has been housed in Leesburg for 40 years; and the Academies of Engineering and Technology, which was started two years ago and temporarily housed at Tuscarora High School.
Priddy used the term “intentional collisions” to describe the collaboration she and the directors of the three academies want to create among the programs. She said that concept drove every decision in the years leading up to the school’s opening—from the classroom design to the open lunch hour to the clubs that the Academies’ 2,500 students can join.
School leaders asked the designers and architects at Stantec to intersperse the AOS, MATA, and AET classrooms instead of separating the programs into wings. Students from all three magnet schools will be invited to take part in any of the clubs, which will be held during an extended lunch hour. And, similar to a college campus, there’s no cafeteria. Students can purchase lunch at four different stations throughout the building and then sit and eat wherever they’d like—in one of the three interior courtyards, one of the eight learning commons, or in the open-air dining commons and café.
“We think with these intentional collisions and supporting collaboration that really great things will happen,” Priddy said.
Even the building’s lighting design was created with collaboration in mind. Floor to ceiling windows and ceiling light cannons—similar to skylights, but they actually magnify sunlight—make guests quickly forget they’re standing in the middle of a three-story concrete building. Many of the classrooms and labs also have glass walls or, in a few cases like the research library, no walls at all.
“This is all meant to communicate an invitation to ask questions—‘what’s going on in there,’” she said. Priddy also noted that most of the walls are painted with special paint that creates floor to ceiling dry-erase boards throughout the building. “We want to make every part of the building a learning environment.”
Equipping the Academies
The price tag to build and furnish the Academies is expected to come in at more than $115 million, a big chunk of which was earmarked for new equipment. The School Board voted Tuesday to spend another $767,000 on equipment and furniture at the Academies by shifting unspent funds from other school construction projects.
The building boasts 40 specialized labs stocked with equipment that even industry professionals would love to get their hands on. Research labs include 80-below freezers, refrigerators specially designed to store flammable material, shaking incubators, and individual workspaces similar to what scientists at the Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn have.
The administration of justice classroom—for years taught out of a trailer on Monroe Tech’s Leesburg campus—is equipped with two fingerprinting machines and a criminal justice simulator to prepare students for real-life scenarios.
Laptops will be given to every teacher, and every student will be provided either a laptop or tablet depending on their program. To keep all those devices up and running, the school has a Genius Bar—a take on Apple’s concept—where students and teachers can bring their devices to four technology experts at any time.
The greenhouse could be considered the largest piece of equipment on campus, at three times larger than the greenhouse at Monroe Tech. Everything from the humidity level to temperature can be set through a computer program that allows up to seven climates at once in the greenhouse. The greenhouse also includes two retail stations and an expanded sidewalk out front to accommodate the Environmental Plant Sciences and Biotechnology Department’s popular plant sales.
A lab that students from all of the programs will likely spend time in is the makerspace, with tools for students to create whatever they dream up using metal, wood, or from scratch using 3D printers and laser cutters.
“The ability for students to imagine it and be able to fabricate it in this space is pretty special,” said Technology Resource Teacher Josh Ajima, who helped design the makerspace. He gave the example of a student wanting to design and create a more efficient airplane wing. “He or she can do all of that right here.”
“This does not exist in any high school that I’ve ever seen,” Priddy said of the makerspace. “Throughout the building, there’s a lot of unique equipment that’s not standard for any high school in any way.”
A Work in Progress
When students arrive on campus next Thursday, they may notice a few boxes still to be unpacked and equipment still to be installed.
Earlier this week, auto service technology teacher Jeremy Mills hunched over his to-do list in the new auto lab, surrounded by car engines, boxes of tools, and a shiny new hydraulic lift.
“It’s pretty hectic. There are a lot of tools that are involved, a lot of equipment that’s involved. Lots to get done,” he said. From small things like changing the header on worksheets from Monroe Technology Center to the new name, Monroe Advanced Technical Academy, to big things like reconfiguring an entire lab with massive pieces of equipment. “We’re just starting fresh. It’s going to be difficult, but we’ll get through it.”
On the first day of classes he plans to put seniors to work to help get the final tools and equipment in place.
“I think we’re all feeling the pressure of unpacking and getting settled. It’s not going to happen by the first day of school,” Priddy added. “We’ll open on time, and then we’ll work on it one task at a time beyond that.”
This is her third school construction project in her career; she also helped lead a new building project in Seattle and the renovation effort at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology as its assistant principal.
But she acknowledged the Academies is different. While Loudoun opens at least one new school building each year, it has never built and equipped a school like this before.
“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” Priddy said. “Opening a new school like this is definitely a complex effort, and our staff is working very hard to make sure these spaces are ready for students.”
After hearing about the Academies for years, the students are eager to see it for themselves.
Tucker Benton, a rising junior in AET’s engineering track, has already experienced what makes the magnet program different than a typical high school program. He says AET teaches subjects in a way that all of the lessons connect, as opposed to teaching math and science independently. Now, he’s ready to see—and get his hands on—the state-of-the-art equipment he’s heard so much about.
“They seem to have a ton of different shops—cool science equipment, auto shops, workshops, labs, and a whole bunch of machining tools that will be cool to learn how to use,” said Tucker, who wants to pursue a career in aerospace engineering.
His younger sister, who will be a freshman in AET’s engineering track, expects she’ll spend some time in the makerspace.
“I’ve always loved building robots. I just like to make things that can do things,” she said. “It sounds like there will be so many cool things to work with—I can’t wait.”
Students will get to see the campus for the first time early next week, when they’ll meet their teachers and get a tour. Then, they’ll be back for their first day of classes either Thursday or Friday, depending on their program.
“After years of working on this it’s all going to be meaningful when we see students in the building,” Priddy said. “I can’t wait.”