Courtesy Perkins+Will

The last time any major physical change happened to the campus of Proviso East High School — the oldest part dates back to 1911 — the country was still enthralled by RCA Victor color TVs and Trans World Airline, and in the throes of Vietnam. 

“There hasn’t been a major capital improvement on campus for students since the 1960s,” said Mark Jolicoeur, of Perkins+Will — the architectural firm that the District 209 school board hired back in June to create a Master Facilities Plan for the district’s three buildings. 

Coincidentally, Perkins Will was the firm that designed Proviso West High School in Hillside, built in 1958 followed by three additions added in 1973. 

During a public meeting held Jan. 23 at West, representatives with the architectural firm fielded questions, concerns and recommendations from the audience of at least 50 community members and presented their findings and analysis resulting from an in-depth examination of the state of the district’s three buildings. 

The meeting was the second of three in the planning process, architects said. At the first meeting, held last year, they discussed design principles. 

“A master plan is about developing a long-term roadmap, using your facilities to provide the best value [for tax dollars],” Jolicoeur said. 

During the planning process, he added, the firm has been evaluating three main aspects: the state of the physical buildings (i.e., the foundation, roof, windows, masonry, and lighting); how students learn and process information in the buildings; and what financial resources are available to fund construction and capital improvements. 

The Perkins Will architects compared all three D209 buildings to newly constructed high schools that are up-to-date, up-to-code and equipped with 21st-century features, such as flexible learning environments that encourage active, student-centered learning rather than 20th-century, teacher-centered, rote instruction. 

The architects said they spent hours touring the facilities and talking to students, teachers and faculty during their evaluation. They judged the buildings based on the ergonomics of the furniture, the acoustics in the spaces, the temperature controls, and the air flow. 

According to the architects, the Proviso East campus — while rich in history and structurally sound in architecture — is wanting in many areas and in need of some major renovations. 

The circulation of people and traffic at the school’s First Avenue-facing clock tower entrance is often blocked before and after the school day; the athletic fields need to be brought up to competitive standards; the lighting is relatively old and outdated; science labs are in need of upgrades; and the whole campus needs air conditioning. 

In addition, during a time when many high school library spaces are being used to host news shows — replete with green screens and production equipment — the libraries at both East and West seem more suitable for a world of landline phones, dial-up internet and Britannica encyclopedias. 

Proviso Math and Science Academy, a renovated office building that opened in 2005 is the newest of the district’s three buildings, but Jessica Wagner, of Perkins Will, said PMSA has not undergone any major capital improvements since its opening. 

The school’s facilities-related strengths, said Wagner, are its science labs, the most up-to-date in the district, a library that is “generally in working order,” and library and classroom furniture that, while they could use updating, are much more flexible and ergonomically friendly than the boxy, one-size-fits-all, industrial-era furniture at East and West. 

PMSA’s weaknesses, however, lie in its relatively small, land-locked campus. At 225,000 square feet, the school is less than half the size of East and West, and its 8.5 acres pale in comparison to East’s 46 acres and West’s 55 acres. 

PMSA’s auditorium, Wagner said, is too small to seat all of the school’s students and has acoustical and sight-line issues; its indoor PE space, “a lot smaller than ideal,” has low ceilings and columns in the center, and can get so cramped that students often take their play into the hallways and corridors. 

Classrooms in all three district buildings are relatively underutilized, the architects said. The classroom utilization rate in the schools range from 64 percent at PMSA to 67 percent at East — far below the 85 percent utilization rate that architects recommend. 

Proviso East, in particular, has experienced a substantial drop in student population. A campus that once housed around 4,500 students at its peak, decades ago, is now home to 1,814 students. 

The relative abundance of indoor and outdoor space at East and West, architects said, can be a good problem to have. While both campuses are old compared to newer high schools, they are both well-designed, structurally sound and capable of adapting to the 21st century needs of contemporary students, the architects noted. 

Community members at the Jan. 23 meeting voiced a range of concerns about the district’s facilities, particularly the fact that East is without air conditioning. 

And some alumni were shocked when they toured the buildings and saw that they hadn’t changed since they attended the high schools decades ago. 

“It was shocking to see the same locker rooms I utilized many years ago,” said Proviso East graduate Randall McFarland, adding that he and other attendees were also concerned about unsecured blind spots in the campuses that might allow “someone to introduce something into the schools that could be detrimental to students and staff.”  

Other people in attendance, such as Proviso East graduate Sue Henry, said the district should prioritize her alma mater in its master plan, since the Maywood school is the oldest among the three buildings. 

Jolicoeur said that, after a third, and possibly a fourth, public meeting is held later this year, the firm will bring a draft plan to the school board in June. 

“The board will then digest this in a more granular way,” he said, adding that the board’s finance committee will look at what funding options are available “to deliver the highest priorities in the master plan to be phased over a number of years.” 

Jolicoeur, himself a 1979 graduate of Proviso West, said he and his colleagues have not presented the public with any specific ideas to be incorporated into the master plan because “we want you to be part of creating what those ideas will be,” he told attendees. “We have no preconceived notions about what’s best for District 209.” 

“We need your support to ensure that our facilities master plan fits the needs of all our communities,” said D209 board President Theresa Kelly during the meeting. “We’re counting on you to help us do what we have to do to make these schools great again.” 

The next public meeting — scheduled for Feb. 27, 6 to 8 p.m., at Proviso East High School — will discuss concrete planning ideas that the school board could evaluate in July.