Here Comes the Sun: College Park Elementary School

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Here Comes the Sun!


Those who live at the coast are no stranger to Mother Nature. They are attuned to the tides, can probably tell you which fish are biting today, and know how to “keep a weather eye on the horizon.” These skills become particularly important during the months from June to November: hurricane season. For people along the North Carolina coast, 2018’s hurricane season was one for the record books. When Hurricane Florence arrived in September, the storm stalled just offshore, dumping unprecedented amounts of water from New Bern to Wilmington. Coupled with the devastating storm surge and inland flooding, Florence was one of the most expensive and damaging storms in the region’s history.

Hurricane Florence, photo courtesy of NOAA



For students at College Park Elementary School, the storm wreaked havoc on an already unsettled school year. The elementary schoolers had said goodbye to their old school in the spring of 2017, a 1964 building which was known for being dark, dated, and disorienting. Built in 1964 with additions in 1967 and 1969, the building had outlived its service life and struggled to meet the needs of a growing population. The low roof, tiny windows, hodgepodge of partitions, and quaint beehive structure made the campus difficult to navigate and impossible to secure. It was time to provide a modern learning environment for College Park’s students, though the demolition and construction meant the students would spend two years in a temporary swing school.



After Hurricane Florence, however, the temporary school was among the hardest hit by the storm. The wind-driven rain came in at 100 miles per hour through the roof, windows, and faucets. When the rain stopped, numerous leaks had ruined carpets, drywall, and even ceiling tiles. The College Park students were out of school for weeks, along with the rest of the county; when they returned to school, they were split between two other facilities. Everyone made the best of a crowded situation, cheerfully accommodating up to 45 kids in a classroom, but it was not ideal. Fast forward a few months, and the picture looks much, much brighter.

The College Park kids moved into their new school in April, which opened on an accelerated schedule to finish out the school year in style. Their new building is lightfilled, vibrant, and welcoming for all ages. At the heart of the school, a massive sunburst under a blue ceiling “cloud� welcomes students and staff as soon as they move through a cheerful light-filled entry gallery. The gallery- a secure vestibule which serves as the single entry point for all students, staff, and guests for greatly improved security- greets students with a high-impact graphics in the form of a nature-inspired floor, doubleheight ceiling, abstracted hanging leaves, and a permanent art installation.


The vibrant but calming color scheme celebrates the site’s natural environment through hanging abstractions of leaves forming a tree-like canopy, warm maple casework, and green stairwells. Throughout the building, color-coded hallways help small building users navigate the space with confidence.


The school’s kid-friendly furnishings are unique within the school system, with pieces featuring wavy lines, rounded edges, bold colors, and writable surfaces. The furnishings were selected for maximum flexibility to support a 21st century learning environment and easily adapt to any task from individual study to collaborative, project-based activities.


College Park’s shared spaces share the bright, cheerful, nature-inspired aesthetic. The media center echoes the abstracted tree and leaf motif found through the school with clusters of leaf-green hex tile flooring. With a blend of soft seating and spaces for focused work, the media center accommodates a variety of learning modes and functions through flexible furnishings and curved shelves to define the space. The art and music rooms, likewise, make use of high-impact graphics with a color wheel on the floor of the art room and scattered squares for assembling a student orchestra in the music room.

The multifunctional cafeteria includes a multipurpose room/ stage/gymnasium space with a movable partition divider to accommodate a variety of uses. The cafeteria design is highly efficient with no dishwasher or fryer; everything is steamed, which both reduces equipment needs and contributes to better health and wellness for the students.


Technology is front and center in the new College Park as well. Recordex Touch screens in learning spaces help teachers to engage students in multidisciplinary learning. Even the teacher’s spaces in the school are modern; every teacher has lockable space and room to collaborate.

Security was a key design driver, especially given the school’s proximity to a busy thoroughfare and a large university campus. The secure entry vestibule allows staff to identify each guest before buzzing them into the school building; this vestibule is the single point of entry during the school day, and teachers use key fobs to access exterior corridor doors. All exterior classroom doors are exit-only, and interior classroom doors have keyed locks.


The new site is much better equipped to handle the unpredictability of a coastal storm, with a new drainage system and two ponds to handle retention onsite. An outdoor classroom helps keep students connected to their beautiful coastal environment, and the site design preserved so many trees that the second story of the school feels a little like a treehouse.

It was

worth the wait.


Moving forward, the College Park kids will always remember the year Hurricane Florence came to town. Their bright new school, however, offers reminders at every turn that the coast is a beautiful place to live, and the sun always comes back out again when the storm is over. It was worth the wait.


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