Laraway School Puts Joliet Students at the Forefront
Community supports new preK-8 school that promotes independence, improves safety, reduces operations costs, and celebrates Joliet’s heritage
Laraway School, built in the early 1950s, had many problems: overcrowded corridors and classrooms, sparse natural light, an aging infrastructure, and skyrocketing maintenance costs. Then there were the trucks. The 18-wheelers, going to and from nearby warehouses and intermodal sites, caused traffic headaches and reduced campus safety.
“The trucks were bumper to bumper,” said Laraway School District 70C Board President Gary Knight. “You couldn’t get into or out of the school safely.”
The district, with strong community support, built a replacement school on Rowell Avenue. The new Laraway School, designed by Legat Architects, consolidates the old Laraway (grades 2 – 8) and Oak Valley (grades preK – 1) schools in a light-filled facility with more space, more student opportunities, and more energy-efficient systems. And to the relief of many once-frustrated parents, there are far fewer trucks: the 119,000-square foot school has homes on three sides and a light industrial facility on the fourth.
Overwhelming Support for a Community Jewel
The old Laraway school was built when Joliet was predominately a rural region.
Knight said, “Our community had changed so we wanted to change with it.”
Knight and his fellow board members, wearied by outdated facilities and ever-increasing energy and maintenance bills, determined to put the new school on the ballot for the November, 2016 referendum. They tasked Legat with master planning and pre-referendum assistance. The site of the new school would be a former farm nestled within a residential neighborhood.
“I heard ‘That’s good enough’ a thousand times, but ‘good enough’ was not in our vocabulary. We had one opportunity to do what’s best for the kids, and we did that.” – Gary Knight, Laraway School Board President
“It wasn’t a hard case to make,” said Legat project manager Rob Wroble. “The community was well aware of the safety and educational shortcomings of the old schools. The new Laraway also made sense from an economic standpoint: we estimated that in 2030, the cost to repair the old school would be the same as building a new one today.”
The planning effort proved effective: the new Laraway School passed by an 80% “yes” vote on the referendum ballot. Additionally, the board avoided financing that would increase property taxes of local homeowners.
Watch the video below to hear board members talk about the community’s participation in the planning and design of the new school.
Saul Brass, board vice president, said, “We invited members of the community to participate in the design of the building. Legat listened to us and gave us what we wanted; the entire community felt like they were part of the process.”
Key to the board’s vision was creating a school that offered its students an environment rich in educational opportunities.
“I heard ‘That’s good enough’ a thousand times,” said Knight, but ‘good enough’ was not in our vocabulary. We had one opportunity to do what’s best for the kids, and we did that.”
The new Laraway School, which doubles the size of its predecessor, offers its 460 students a spacious home with many components the old one lacked: grade level neighborhoods, STEM spaces, areas for learning outside the classroom, a secure outdoor courtyard, and plenty of daylight.
One of the main challenges the board presented to Legat was to design a school that respects its residential neighbors, but also sets itself apart from nearby non-residential buildings.
Brass said, “During planning, we asked that it not look like a warehouse. We have a masonry exterior, unlike the preformed concrete that many of the buildings surrounding us have. It’s going to be a jewel of the community.”
Among the oft-cited problems within the old Laraway were confined hallways that forced together older and younger students.
The new Laraway responds with four grade level “neighborhoods”: preK-1, 2-3, 4-5, and 6-8. The neighborhoods, each of which resides in a self-contained wing, surround a central courtyard.
A looped corridor connects the neighborhoods to all other areas of the building and provides two travel options to minimize interactions between older and younger students. Each color-identified neighborhood starts with a “front porch” with built-in benches.
Wroble said, “What differentiates Laraway from other preK-8 facilities is that each neighborhood offers features that respond to its students’ ages, while also encouraging staff collaboration.”
Neighborhood highlights include the following:
- PreK-1 corridors open to large spaces that promote active learning with trikes, trampolines, and other resources.
- Student lockers located down the center of the 2-3 and 4-5 neighborhoods define three areas for flexible, small group learning. The lower height of the lockers promotes interaction and keeps views open, but also frees wall space for windows, tackboards, and writable wall coverings.
- Middle school students change classes in the 6-8 neighborhood loop. The presentation area at the center of the loop offers tiered seating and a “kitchen counter” complete with stools for breakout sessions. Movable soft seating and tables create opportunities for collaboration within a more casual setting.
Team rooms and adjacent storage within each neighborhood support team teaching by giving staff a convenient home-base with room for planning.
Wroble and his team also focused on personalization. For example, large tackboards allow each classroom to add its own voice to neighborhood common areas. Display opportunities on the front porches let each neighborhood share its team identity with the entire Laraway community.
The new layout creates a stark contrast to the old Laraway, where students crowded dark, narrow corridors with no breakout spaces. Additionally, in the previous school, the only corridor views into classrooms were through a small window in the door. The new Laraway not only has larger windows within the doors, but also sizable windows that offer much better views between classrooms and flexible learning areas. Floor-to-ceiling windows supply natural light and views to help draw students and staff through their neighborhoods.
Design Inspiration: Farming and Quarrying
Legat’s research revealed that the Joliet region owes much of its success to farming and quarrying. The team, therefore, set out to integrate those two industries into the design of the new Laraway School.
According to Wroble, the image of crop rows stretching to the horizon inspired many aspects within the building. Examples include the east-to-west orientation of classroom wings, colored accent stripes in the floor, and long, randomly-placed light fixtures. The school’s exterior, with its regularly spaced, vertical classroom windows and randomly placed scores in the face brick, also call to mind organized growth.
The City of Joliet’s first major industry was limestone quarrying. Not only does the sturdy material appear in facilities throughout the city, but Joliet Limestone can be seen everywhere from the iconic Water Tower in downtown Chicago to the main staircase in the White House.
Laraway School’s response is the “quarry wall,” a curving stone wall that starts at the main office entry and flows through the outdoor courtyard and cafeteria before it ends at the student/event entrance.
With a curve inspired by the nearby Wauponsee Glacial Trail, the quarry wall creates a dramatic backdrop throughout the school. Students see it from the courtyard, library, STEM lab, art classroom, and cafeteria. The interior floor finishes and river-like shape of the entry walks further define the path through the school, which leads lead to a central stage-like area within the courtyard. Here students can sit for a class or do performances.
Student teams in Stephanie Taylor’s science class watch wide-eyed as balloons speed along string they’ve stretched across the new science lab.
Such an experiment in velocity was not possible in the much smaller science lab of the old Laraway School. There students often crowded around four sinks, which didn’t even have hot water.
The new lab, twice the size of the old one, has six sinks (with hot water), movable furniture, outlets that drop from ceiling reels, and metal cabinets comparable to those in collegiate and professional laboratories. A blue teaching wall helps students focus and, unlike before, natural light fills the space.
Building Real World Skills in the Modular Tech STEM Lab
In the modular tech lab, seventh and eighth grade student teams go through “modules” with a STEM focus. The hands-on projects, which connect to Joliet Township High School’s Career Academy, challenge teams to solve a problem or answer a question posed at the beginning of the module.
Students go through six two-week modules during each of their seventh and eighth grade years. If a student enjoys a particular module—health and human services, for instance—he or she can confidently transition to that academy at the high school.
Technology/computer teacher Frank Dillinger said the layout is designed for students to work in pairs.
“Students don’t get a choice of who they’re going to work with,” said Dillinger. “Finding a way to complete a project with whoever they’re assigned is another life skill that students develop.”
Library: More Room and More Views
The former library was cramped and small windows close to the ground restricted natural light.
The new, much larger library spreads out bookshelves to keep views open to the floor-to-ceiling windows that display the courtyard.
“The new library gives students plenty of places to lounge and read,” said library media specialist Joanna Jolly. “They also love to go out into the courtyard.”
Jolly and her colleagues can quickly rearrange movable bookshelves and furniture to suit a variety of learning programs. She said that early learners were happy to get away from the old chairs designed for larger kids. Now, there’s enough space for a reading nook so they can sit on comfortable chairs or on the floor. Additionally, the younger students like to read on the window benches when the lights are dimmed.
A movable glass wall separates the library from the adjacent room: a presentation lab for teaching topics ranging from research methods and presentation skills, as well as hosting entrepreneur class.
Commons Area and Gym
When Gary Knight was the Laraway girls’ basketball coach, the team walked into a gym at another, newer school. One of the girls, noting the disparity between that space and the dated gym at her own school, said, “Do they allow kids like us in this gym?”
“They didn’t think they were good enough to be in that building,” said Knight. “They saw what they didn’t have and we needed to provide that.”
The new school’s gym brings Laraway up to par with those at surrounding schools. When the bleachers get pushed in and the divider curtain is lowered, the full court transforms into two near regulation-size practice courts.
A stage connects the gym and cafeteria/commons area. The stage’s movable acoustic wall eliminates disruption during simultaneous events. During larger performances on the gym side, students can use the cafeteria as a green room. Built-in risers on the cafeteria side provide a platform for smaller performances and a casual place to hang out after school.
Designed to Succeed
Not all traces of the original 70-year-old Laraway School are gone. For instance, a lobby display case in the new school proudly displays marble from the exterior entry of the old school, along with memorabilia from the district’s heritage. Nearby are family pictures recalling the farming history of the new Laraway site.
“It’s proven that when you feel good about your surroundings, you start to feel good about yourself, and this building brings that out.” – Saul Brass, Laraway School Board Vice President
Another carryover from the old Laraway is the district’s unwavering mission to help each child develop to his or her greatest potential. This mission drove the design of the new Laraway.
Ask Laraway students what they like most about their new school and they’re likely to have similar responses: It’s bigger than the old school. It’s cleaner. It has more spacious classrooms, more windows, more color, more light.
Board member Ron Hopkins articulated the net result of all these observations. “The new school makes the kids proud of being here, proud of being a Laraway student.”
“It’s proven that when you feel good about your surroundings,” added Brass, “you start to feel good about yourself, and this building brings that out.”
Michelle Matenaer, school board secretary, has observed the impact of the new school on her own children. “In the old school,” she said, “they weren’t too excited to wear shirts or jackets with the Laraway Lancer logo, but now they’re proud.”
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