New Little Rock Southwest High School a Point of Pride

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Apr. 16, 2018 12:00 am   4 min read

A lot is riding on the first new high school in the Little Rock School District in more than 50 years.

The groundbreaking ceremony for Little Rock Southwest High School — its official name, chosen in part to correspond to Little Rock Central — was Oct. 2, and the school is projected to open in August 2020.

With a cost of $103 million, the school is one of the largest commercial construction projects currently underway in Arkansas.

Built in the digital age, and set to open 54 years after work began on the district’s last new high school, Parkview, in 1966, Southwest High will be state-of-the-art, with every room capable of handling the latest technology.

It will also be “transformational,” said Little Rock School Superintendent Michael Poore, instilling pride not only in the 2,250 students who attend, but in the entire community and particularly in its home neighborhood of southwest Little Rock.

The new high school, educating students in ninth through 12th grades, will replace McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools and will include about 300 students from the area who are now being bused to Hall High.

Its mascot, fittingly, is the gryphon (more typically spelled “griffin”), a mythical creature combining the body, tail and hind legs of the lion (McClellan’s mascot) and the head and wings of the eagle (Fair’s mascot).

The design is by Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock, and the construction team consists of Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway, Doyne Construction of North Little Rock and Carson & Associates of Little Rock.

The new school should achieve four things, Poore said.

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“The first thing I want it to be is a sense of pride for the entire community, but most importantly for our kids,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming. There’s a facility inadequacy when you look in the southwest. The McClellan facility in particular — it’s really almost a tragedy that that building wasn’t addressed a long time ago.”

Second, Poore said, the building will foster an important educational concept: collaboration, between students, between students and teachers and between teachers, as well as with the community as a whole.

Third, the new facility, with its high-functioning heating and air conditioning, good lighting and “top-notch” equipment, will promote learning.

And fourth, it will provide opportunities for the students to develop their skills and passions through the performing arts and athletics, “and it will also draw in the community,” Poore said, through residents’ attendance at performances and athletic events.

Project architect Sarah Bennings of Polk Stanley, a 1999 graduate of Central, said Little Rock Southwest is designed to be flexible for students and teachers to promote learning, but there’s another goal as well. “I just want students to be inspired when they walk in the building,” she said. “I want them to wake up in the morning and be excited to go to school and want to be there. I just want it to give them a feeling of importance and pride and purpose.”

And Kevin Yarberry, director of maintenance and operations for LRSD, said that in designing the new school, top of mind always was “purpose. That means from the classroom all the way out to the field house.

“Every space was — there’s a lot of thought and a lot of energy and a lot of collaboration to determine what the needs were and what our expectations were, and we set our expectations high for all of those spaces,” he said. “But every one of those spaces was designed with a profound purpose.”

The school district paid $1.4 million for the 56 acres wedged between Mabelvale Pike and Mann Road in 2013. The $103.4 million project cost covers construction of 410,000 SF and all fixed furnishings. The district is paying for the school using a combination of sources: the final $37 million state desegregation-aid payment, a portion of the funds from $93 million in second-lien bonds issued after voters defeated a 12.4-mill school tax extension in May 2017 and a small part from reserve funds.

That $103.4 million figure is the guaranteed maximum price, beyond which the contractor is obligated to cover. “It’s kind of a relief on the district’s part, because now, unless we do something like a significant change order, all the costs are tied in to Nabholz to deliver,” Poore said.

“I don’t think we foresee any major changes or obstacles,” he said. And that, Poore said, is because the district — led by Deputy Superintendent Marvin Burton, who is overseeing the school project — did a good job of soliciting input on the design from numerous interested parties, including staff members, students and members of the community.

The state of Arkansas, in the person of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, has controlled the district since January 2015 after six of the district’s 48 schools were listed as being in academic distress. Among them were McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools, though they were removed from the list in February 2017.

Little Rock Southwest High will be open and airy and full of natural light, with every classroom having windows. It will include a 1,200-seat auditorium and an arena-sized gymnasium as well as football, baseball and soccer fields and a field house.

Designers focused on providing CTE (career and technical education) spaces, said Bennings, who as a graduate of the district said she felt a particular responsibility to ensure the new school serves it well, so the facilities will include robotics, engineering, aeronautics and medical science labs.

And the school is designed to be energy efficient and “virtually maintenance free,” Poore said, employing features like occupancy sensors, LED lighting and up-to-date heating and cooling units.

In describing the importance of Little Rock Southwest High, Yarberry echoed Poore and Bennings and their emphasis on pride. “The southwest Little Rock area deserves something to be proud of in the way of a facility, in the way of the opportunities that that facility will provide,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a big deal for the students as well as the community.”



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