When voters in 2012 approved a $482 million school construction bond for Portland Public Schools, they expected part of the money would be used to upgrade seismic standards and address deferred maintenance issues at some of the district's existing school buildings.
While the $158 million modernization project that recently wrapped up at Grant High School accomplished those goals, it also helped address another problem at the school — that of inequality among students resulting from the outdated design of the nearly 95-year-old building.
On a recent October morning, during an open flex period, students mixed and mingled in Grant's new, light-flooded commons area that doubles as the school's cafeteria space.
It's a far different scene from two years ago, when a team from Mahlum Architects first visited the school to talk with students and faculty as they began the process of creating a design for the modernization project.
At the time, the outdated building contained five basement areas used as classrooms and a cafeteria that students told the design team had created an unintended division among students at the school.
It was insight that would drive the direction of the overall design of the project, and provide team members and Grant High School administrators with some new lessons along the way.
"The design process focus was not just modernization and aesthetics," Carol Campbell, the high school's principal, said. "(It) was a real intentional focus on the spaces themselves, how they were serving students and faculty and the community."
Food for thought
Before the modernization project began in June 2017, the Grant High School campus in the Hollywood District in Northeast Portland actually consisted of nine separate buildings. The buildings contained five unconnected basements that were used for one-third of classes as well as for the school's kitchen and cafeteria areas.
The basement spaces lacked windows. Students trying to get from one basement to another had to go up and down stairs, causing delays that often resulted in them arriving late for classes.
"That added to stress levels for the students," said JoAnn Wilcox, a design principal with Mahlum.
The location of the school's cafeteria in one of the basement spaces also created a stigma for students who received reduced-price or free lunches. Although the school never placed limits on where those meals were consumed, students with free or reduced lunches tended to stay in the cramped, dim basement area.
Meanwhile, students who brought their lunches or purchased food off-campus tended to eat in ground-floor areas or out on the grounds in nice weather. The situation created a sense of exclusion for the students who received reduced or free lunches.
"It was dividing students on a socioeconomic basis," Campbell said.
The problem was first brought to light by an article in the award-winning, student-run montly publication, Grant magazine. A student later brought the issue to the attention of the Mahlum team, asking whether something could be done with the new school design to eliminate the problem.
The design team immediately took the request to heart, according to Wilcox. "In a modern environment, every learner is important and every level is important, so erasing the stigma was important," she said.
The solution lay in creating a two-story commons area outfitted with plenty of tables as well as moving the main kitchen and cafeteria areas up to the ground level of the renovated building. Glancing around the newly placed commons space adjacent to a shiny, new kitchen area, there's no noticeable separation between students who do and don't pay for their lunches.
Now the stigma is gone," Campbell said. "Nobody knows who's getting reduced or free lunches."
With more kitchen and cafeteria space, the school now also is able to serve students a wider range of healthy food options, including offering a salad bar, Campbell said. In just the first month of school, she's already noticed an increase in the number of students buying lunches from the cafeteria.
"Students and families are seeing that buying lunch is a good option," Campbell said. "We're seeing more students staying on site for lunch and flex time."
Eliminating stigma and inequity also became the focus of the design of the school's restrooms.
Even before the modernization project, school administrators found themselves looking for a solution to requests from transgender students for gender-neutral, or all-user, bathroom options.
With limited options in the outdated building, administrators ended up opening a few single-user bathrooms normally reserved for staff and faculty for the use of students who didn't feel comfortable using gender-specific bathrooms. Before too long, those single-use restrooms had long lines of students waiting to use them, a point students brought up with the design team during a stakeholder meeting.
"What the students observed was that no one wanted to go into the traditional bathrooms," Wilcox said. "it's not just a transgender issue; it's about privacy."
Mahlum's team studied other school projects around the country, looking for a solution to the Grant restroom issue. In the end, they offered an all-user design, an approach that stakeholders, for the most part, supported.
Instead of the usual stalls, toilets are in small separate rooms with locking solid doors, resembling a line of individual closets. The rooms all open into a main area with a long communal sink and a wide entryway. The open sink area allows teachers to walk by and see, at a glance, what's going on.
The design for the Grant High School restrooms likely will serve as a prototype both for Portland Public Schools and other educational facilities the architecture firm will work on in the future, Wilcox said.
"I would say the students taught me a heck of a lot about bathroom design," she added. "We've done hybrid inclusive (bathrooms) ... but the depth of understanding just how bathrooms could evolve ... is definitely a lesson we'll take from this project."
Old meets new
Even as students pointed out the features they felt could be improved by the new school design, there were many stakeholders who saw worth in paying tribute to the historical value of the building. Alumni, for example, understood the need to update the building, but also wanted to be able to walk in and still recognize the place where they went to school.
For Wilcox and the rest of the design team, finding a way to blend those requests offered a lesson on how to bring old and new together. A wall treatment near the main central staircase, for example, is made from bleachers from the old gymnasium. Walls in two forum spaces, which can be used for small gatherings such as choir performances and guest speaker appearances, feature wood from the old gym floor.
"There's this idea that to be modern, you have to erase everything that was history. (But) there are lot of very beautiful things about the historical building," Wilcox said. "This project taught me how to find that place between history and the new that allows both to resonate."
The school's auditorium also provided a chance to combine the past, present and future.
As per Portland Public Schools policy, the district is calling for newer, smaller auditoriums to be constructed for all schools. Grant, however, has a long history of an extremely active and popular performing arts program tied to its original large auditorium. So, students, faculty and other stakeholders campaigned to be allowed to keep the building's auditorium with just some cosmetic structural upgrades boosted by new lighting and acoustical features.
Gone, for example, are the overhead catwalks. Instead, banks of lights along the ceiling can be lowered and then raised again by remote control, a safer and easier way of changing bulbs and adjusting color gels. A fresh coat of paint and new carpeting also helped freshen up the space.
The room did lose some seats in order to made room for classroom-specific space behind the balcony area, dropping from an original 1,600 seats to 935. But original touches such as stained-glass lighted exit signs over doors and decorative wall details around the stage remain. The renovation also left intact two hand-painted murals, one on each side of the stage.
The murals, which were a gift to the school's first principal, contain inaccurate representations of indigenous people, Campbell said. So, the school is working with students, faculty, community members and groups representing indigenous people to figure out how to address those issues.
For now, the artwork has been covered with two oversize screens that will be used later this year during Grantastic, the school's annual end-of-year celebration of the arts.
Continuing the communication
The Grant modernization actually ended up being a hybrid project, with about 40% of the work being new construction for classroom additions as well as a new gymnasium add-on. Sixty percent of the work focused on renovating the existing building. A joint venture between Andersen Construction and Colas Construction handled general contractor duties. CBRE HEERY served as overall program manager and also handled project and construction management.
"A lot of our work was to create a sense of place that was the heart of the campus," Wilcox said.
In the final design, only two of the nine buildings on the campus were left standing: the main school building, expanded with a new gymnasium and additional classroom space, and a second, smaller structure that at one time housed the school's original gym.
The main building, which is approximately 330,000 square feet, now features abundant light, polished concrete floors, a central staircase and light wood offset by dark slate-colored walls. Heating and cooling systems are state-of-the art.
Teachers have options for holding classes, from regular classrooms to small glass-walled instructional areas and two forums with step seats. The main entrance boasts a security system that automatically locks and unlocks door on schedule.
The smaller structure, built in the 1920s to serve as the school's original gym, has been transformed into a space for the school's arts programs, from photography to screen printing.
The double-high space features what Wilcox describes as "beautiful daylight and wood," along with a stylized entrance featuring columns that match columns at the school's main entry. An added floor has created an art gallery surrounded by art studios. The building also serves as the location for teen parenting services.
The building is connected to the main school and the campus as a whole by a courtyard created by demolishing a building and relocating a parking lot. The courtyard area provides a place for students to hang out and eat lunch while also connecting the campus to an adjacent public park.
The modernized school was expected to serve 1,700 students, with the potential to be able to accommodate 1,800 total. By the time the school started this past September, however, enrollment had reached 1,820.
Some of those new students represent families that recently moved to the neighborhoods surrounding Grant, part of the continuing arrival of new residents to Portland.
But Campbell also has talked to parents of new arrivals at Grant who say they moved to the neighborhood after researching schools and learning about the new renovation. Other are students whose families already were living in the area and might have started their freshman years at a private school but whose parents decided to send them to Grant after learning how the renovation would improve the school.
Even with enrollment at capacity, students are finding plenty of spaces to gather, learn and collaborate in the new building. Popular spots range from commons area tables to soft seating in the library to concrete seat steps tucked behind and under the new central staircase.
They're also continuing to make their voices heard, encouraged to continue to bring their concerns and ideas to the attention of Campbell and the school's faculty.
The biggest changes "really are being driven by the kids, and we're listening," Campbell said.
Grant High School modernization
Cost: $158 million
Start date: June 2017
Completion: September 2019
Owner: Portland Public Schools
Architect: Mahlum Architects
Engineer: KPFF Consulting Engineers
Contractors: Andersen Construction and Colas Construction (joint venture)
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