Back to elementary school

Anyone who auditioned for “The Human Stain” should remember the old Williamstown Elementary School. One afternoon last spring, hundreds of students crowded through its winding hallways to get their pictures taken and to fill out forms in the dark gymnasium.

This September, Williamstown kids traded that somewhat dated three-building school complex for a bright, new “green” building. Though 15,000 feet smaller in area, the new school has more educational space, a more functional layout and spectacular natural lighting. It’s a world-class facility, built to hold 550 children without ever seeming crowded.

The building’s most notable feature is its status as an energy-saving “green” building. Wide windows provide as much natural light as possible, with energy efficient lights in the classrooms and solar panels on the roof. Tiles, carpets and playground equipment are all made of recycled materials. Plans also call for a greenhouse addition onto the cafeteria to be built later this year. The building’s environmentally- friendly status will save the school electricity costs in the long run. The focus on energy also allows an opportunity for a new curriculum, with environmentally-focused lessons built into each grade level.

Construction began with plans for a single two-story building, as opposed to the old complex which had three buildings connected additively. The three buildings were two, three and four stories tall, with massive stairwells and windy hallways linking them. Because so much of the old school’s space went unused, the new facility has more educational space despite its smaller total square footage.

The new space is seen most readily in the classrooms. All are spacious with multiple areas serving different functions; some even include kitchenettes. While some of the old buildings had classrooms of 730 square feet, the new facility includes classrooms of 1,100 square feet for the youngest grades, and rooms of 1,000 square feet for everyone else.

“Space makes a real difference in how kids act in the classrooms,” Principal David Rempell explained . While claustrophobia was a problem in the old building, students can now read or work in small groups without bumping into each other.

The complex is designed in an easy-to-navigate “inverse-E” shape. Grade levels are organized into classroom “pods,” with each pod containing all the classrooms for each grade, a bathroom and a small multi-purpose room. The straightaway between the pods includes the major features of the school, most notably the cafeteria, auditorium and the gymnasium. Unlike the multi-purpose rooms of many schools, each room is separate, holding its own specific identity and function. The cafeteria is carved into a corner, with wraparound windows offering a full view of the playground. The wooden-floored gym has two levels, with its upper windows flooding light into a second floor hallway. The auditorium includes retractable bleachers and an elevated, curtained stage, which connects directly to the music room.

Perched atop the second floor, the library is the grand finale of the building. Its layout is simple and streamlined, with long lines of bookshelves and benched “reading nooks” carved into the sides of the room. A two-level cupola adds a dramatic surge of light and air. The addition of the cupola halfway through construction was a schoolwide event; as the crane placed the structure onto the existing walls, the entire school gathered outside to watch the move.

Technology accompanies the new architecture. Every classroom is outfitted with three computers, connected to a large overhead monitor. The building also houses two computer labs, filled with bright white Macs. The entire building is wired to the network, using the ethernet connection from the College.

Other features include special-needs rooms, teacher planning rooms and bathrooms scaled to size for the preschool children. The building is also entirely handicapped accessible, as opposed to the old complex which only offered two-thirds accessibility. An additional benefit is all new furniture, which was possible because construction went according to the expected price.

Another one of the building’s calming features is its warm colors, which complement the building’s bright natural lighting. Each teacher had the option of choosing the color scheme of his or her classroom in order to provide some variety throughout the building. Now the school is only waiting for the construction of the proposed greenhouse, and a new parking lot with a queuing line and bus lane. Also, a new sidewalk will soon connect the facility with School Street, where the entrance to the old elementary school was located.

Surprisingly, the administration is not expecting an enrollment surge to accompany this year’s opening of the building. The school currently houses 550 children, with projections estimating that enrollment will remain at that point or even decline. However, the kindergarten class was larger than predicted, prompting the creation of four, rather than the anticipated three, classroom groups.

Now, kids fill the homey classroom pods and swamp the sleek new cafeteria at lunch. The school is “a beautiful place to be everyday,” according to Rempell, who also maintains that it’s “thrilling. . .to be part of a community so involved and supportive of the education of the young child.”