Chicago-based Legat architects bring to life a brand new school in Illinois for students ranging from pre-k to eighth grade
For some 10 years, Chicago-based Legat Architects worked with Laraway School, in Joliet, Illinois, to “Band-aid its two existing buildings,” says Legat principal Robin Randall, director of pre-k-12 education.
But after a while, these dark, crowded 1950s structures became untenable, exacerbated by increasing truck traffic that interfered with school drop-off and pick-up times and a nearby quarry “blasting away so that they would have to stop instruction,” points out Randall. What was needed was a brand-new site, and luckily 80 percent of the community voted for bringing it to life.
Propelled by Laraway School’s visionary superintendent and board of directors, Randall and her team, led by project manager Rob Wroble and project architect Jessica Carlson, created a light-filled 119,000-square-foot school for 460 students (98 percent of whom come from low-income families) spanning pre-k through eighth grade.
Unlike surrounding precast concrete buildings, this one flaunts a façade of brick and stone and nods to Laraway’s roots with a lobby display case featuring marble salvaged from the former entryway, as well as a wall that references Joliet’s limestone-quarrying heritage.
Considering the vast age range of children under one roof, Legat’s environmental learning and educational planning expertise was essential. “We had to separate the students yet make them feel comfortable, welcome, and safe,” recalls Randall.
The solution was establishing different neighborhoods, each with its own personality, for four distinct groups: pre-k through first-grade, second and third grade, fourth and fifth grade, and middle school. “We pulled the classrooms apart, so it’s not a corridor but a public space that connects all of them,” Randall points out.
While the littlest kids are focused on movement in their indoor-outdoor neighborhood, the middle-schoolers are sliding into high-school mode, camping out on lounge furniture, listening to guest speakers in the built-in amphitheatre, and reimagining a wraparound counter intended for whiteboard presentations as an informal desk. Those in the middle grades take advantage of half-height lockers and ample counter space that invites a collaborative, kitchen hangout vibe. Neighborhoods are also distinguished by colorful front porches, decked out with built-in benches and tackboards that “provoke curiosity,” as Randall puts it, among the different age groups.
Interactions between pre-K and middle school students do unfold in the central loop that winds around the courtyards and contains the library, STEM lab, cafeteria, gymnasium, and music rooms. But any anxieties about bullying the younger children, for example, were quickly ameliorated. “The older kids actually behave themselves better when they are around the younger ones to impress them and be role models,” says Randall. “Social-emotional learning thrives here.”