As Iowa's urban and suburban areas continue to grow, new high schools take on a college-like feel

"They're trying to prepare students for college and careers," Dave Briden, a senior project architect whose firm was behind the design of Waukee's new high school, Northwest High, told the Register.

Sarah Kay LeBlanc
Des Moines Register
  • Voters approved $117 million in 2018 to build Waukee Northwest, while setting aside about $1.1 million for upgrades to Waukee High.
  • Iowa education experts say maintaining equity in educational opportunities between buildings when districts expand is critical.
  • Waukee Northwest is one of just four districts in Iowa to add a second or third high school in the last 40 years; three were built in the last decade.

It's evident more in the parts than the whole.

The separate planning spaces for teachers, the eventual dropping of classroom ownership, the café area and the plentiful study nooks are all reminiscent of what you would find on a college campus.

If Waukee's new Northwest High School — and the decade of school design trends that predate it — is any indication, preparing students for college is spreading beyond the curriculum as Iowa's cities and suburbs grow and continue to add and renovate high schools.

Even 12 years ago, when Southeast Polk Community School District replaced its high school, it was one of the first high schools in the state to introduce flexible classrooms. Johnston High School, also built as a replacement in 2017, goes a step beyond, with teachers not having desks in classrooms but "presentation kiosks" instead.

Those elements were conscious design choices by FRK Architects and Engineers, the same firm that designed Northwest High.

Dave Briden, a senior project architect at FRK, said the centralized offices in more recent school design lend to a "collegiate feel." Northwest's teachers will utilize those planning spaces more frequently as the district grows and classrooms take on multiple subjects.

"Teachers don't own classrooms like they used to," Briden said. "They teach out to various classrooms, and that allows you to utilize all the classrooms all periods of the day."

Though growth has prompted innovative changes in classroom design, Briden said the way his firm builds has also had to alter as ways of learning change.

More:Here's what you need to know about Waukee's new Northwest High School

Before building, Briden said his team received feedback from teachers and students about what they wanted to see in the new buildings. He said students wanted a community environment, which can be seen at Northwest in a large, open cafeteria space and grouped desks in classrooms.

Students leave Waukee Northwest High School after the bell rings on the first day of classes at the new school on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 in Waukee, IA.

There are also a few classrooms left open for teachers to make use of or students to utilize depending on their learning strategy, including whether they learn best in a group or on their own.

Johnston's high school uses different seating designs to engage students. Classrooms contain an array of desks, high-top tables and rocking desks.

Technology as a curriculum tool also is embedded into building design, Briden said. At Northwest, many classrooms have projectors aimed at whiteboards, and there are screens in hallways for students to hook up to their laptops. Johnston's high school has screens in the cafeteria and computers in classrooms.

"It's the norm for schools to utilize that technology," Briden said. "They use it so much in their curriculum to do group-based projects and things within the classrooms where teachers can put something up on the screen from a student's computer."

Briden doesn't expect to see any letup in the recent emphasis in new buildings on collaboration, openness and planning spaces.

"I think that's the way teaching and learning are going," he said. "They're trying to prepare students for college and careers. It really is a much different environment than we've seen in the past."

As communities continue to grow, more high schools will follow

In the last 40 years, just four districts in Iowa — Ankeny, Iowa City, Davenport and Waukee — have added second or third high schools to their communities. Three were built in the last 10 years.

Ankeny Centennial, built in 2013, and Iowa City's Liberty High School, the district's third, completed in 2017, were both constructed to relieve overcrowding at existing high schools while also accommodating future growth. Ankeny is already planning to build a third high school to open between 2030 and 2034.

Briden said even replacing a high school used to be relatively rare, but he's seen an increase in that lately, too.

"For the most part, high schools, in the past, were somewhat few and far between — especially in terms of brand new ones," he said. "I've done a lot of additions and improvements to high schools over the years. To have so many new ones go up in the last number of years, it's been a little unusual."

Briden's team worked on the replacement of Johnston's High School in 2017, and Ames is currently working on constructing a new high school for its community. He said new buildings could be due to replacing older structures, and others are required as cities and suburbs grow in population.

Students leave Waukee Northwest High School after the bell rings on the first day of classes at the new school on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 in Waukee, IA.

Waukee's Northwest High School is in Dallas County, which has undergone a seismic boom of growth. The county is the fourth fastest-growing in the United States, according to new census data.

More:'Starting a new dynasty': Waukee community looks forward to building new high school's legacy

Kirk Johnson, the district's chief operations officer, said just this year, enrollment in the district is anticipated to grow by 650 students.

Northwest was built with that growth in mind. On its first day of school Tuesday, the building welcomed about 1,300 students through its doors — many of whom remarked on how large the new school felt compared to Waukee High, which exceeded its capacity with more than 2,000 students last year.

"It's a lot bigger," said junior Olivia Flores. "It's more set up for college, and it's more spacious" than Waukee High.

The building was designed with future expansions in mind, too: The school will be able to accommodate more than 2,000 students when required, which could be in the next decade. The district is expected to add more than 3,000 students over the next five years.

Ensuring an equal opportunity to learn

Though the outside of Northwest is certainly newer, Waukee School District spokesperson Amy Varcoe said the district has worked to ensure students at both of the district's high schools have access to the same learning opportunities.

"We have the same experiences, classes, access for all students, (and the) same number of counselors," Varcoe said.

Coy Marquardt, associate executive director for the Iowa State Education Association, said that's an important factor for districts to consider when building a new high school — making sure students and teachers at the original don't feel left out or left behind.

Ankeny and Iowa City kept equity in mind during the building process, Marquardt said. Ankeny replaced its high school within a few years of building Ankeny Centennial, and Iowa City made plans for upgrades to its existing high schools when Liberty was constructed.

Equity between the schools is necessary "for those who aren't going to the new building," he said.

When Waukee asked voters in 2018 to approve $117 million to build Northwest, about $1.1 million was set aside for upgrades to Waukee High. Those upgrades included updates to its technology systems, additional parking and new student collaborative spaces.

Students leave Waukee Northwest High School after the bell rings on the first day of classes at the new school on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 in Waukee, IA.

Several teachers from Waukee High moved over to Northwest, providing students with the same quality of instruction they may have experienced earlier in their high school careers. The school will also offer the same extracurricular activities to all students.

Amy Burke, a parent whose son Caleb began school last week as a 10th-grader at Northwest, said she hopes the additional school will give students extra opportunities to get involved without as much competition.

"It eliminates the overcrowding that was happening before at Waukee High, so it gives those kids more space and those teachers more space for learning and activities, but it also gives students at both schools greater access to opportunities both academically and in activities," she said.

Eleventh-grader Kadyn Morrow said she's glad for the extra space. She said the school is "like a college offering inside," and she views the school as "a step closer to freedom."

"I like the college feeling, getting us prepared for our next steps in the future and what that looks like," she said.

Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or sleblanc@registermedia.com. Follower her on Twitter at @sarahkayleblanc