Column: The Design of Neenah High School


Photo by: Owen Holecko

Students walk the halls of Armstrong during passing time.

Owen Holecko, Student of Journalism

Often as I walk through the halls of Neenah High School I wonder one thing: Why? As someone interested in design, NHS has always perplexed me. As I dig deeper into the design here, all I find is more and more questions.

My hope with this article is that by raising these questions and providing possible answers, we can improve the design of future N.J.S.D. schools and gain knowledge. 

Neenah High School was built in multiple different stages. Here is the chronology of the current campus:  First came the Conant building in 1966; next was Armstrong in 1972; then came the pool in 1991; the link in 1996, and then an overhaul of the entrance to improve safety in 2020. If calculating the math, for 24 years there was no hallway between the two ends of the school. Nor was there even a dedicated cafeteria. 

Taking a deeper look at the inside of NHS, we can certainly see remnants of the ‘60s in its design. Even some issues that break the design standards laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act in its 2010 addition. An official N.J.S.D. report from 2018 includes a section on teacher survey results. Under the section regarding Facility and Site Improvements, the survey says “Separate access to elevator at 2nd floor of Armstrong building desired; currently the door is sometimes locked and prohibits student access from the classrooms.” 

This means that disabled students in upstairs Armstrong may not even be able to get downstairs. Additionally, I found that the bathrooms in Armstrong do not include wheelchair-accessible stalls at all (It is worth noting that I was only able to examine the male bathrooms, of course). 

Luckily, because Armstrong and Conant were made in 1971 and ‘66 respectively, they are exempt from ADA scrutiny, which only affects buildings made after 1991. 

The same report cited previously also goes into the bathroom situation. Saying “Bathrooms – Additional/larger bathrooms desired, dispersed throughout the building and especially in the linking section of the building and near the Auto Shop and Tech. Ed. – Updated bathrooms desired, especially those located within the Conant building – Additional dedicated staff bathrooms desired; especially in the main office/link – Additional transgender bathrooms/changing rooms desired – Updated bathroom stall partitions desired; some stalls don’t lock – Updated hand dryers desired.”

I could go on and on with this report, from things like the obvious safety concern of poor tiling in the showers of the locker rooms to the multitude of times the staff of building raised concerns over mold, or even the many times the word “undersized” was used. But I feel it is better to move on to my main question: Why? 

When Armstrong was developed in the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s a movement was sweeping schools across Britain and the United States, the “Open Classroom.” The idea was that students should learn by doing what they want when they want. The classic desks and chairs of the ‘50s were replaced with large open classrooms where students learned simply by doing. This could offer us an answer as to why Armstrong is designed the way it is. In reality, this is only speculation since I was unable to locate the original architect. 

Since Neenah High School was designed in the 1960s and ‘70s, school design improved leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, open classrooms were abandoned by the end of the ‘70s, and walls were added.  Students, however, have endured the volume, temperature, and traffic flow levels in response to this trendy design. 

With a new high school under construction and eyes, hearts, and minds projecting forward,  how do we prepare for a design the serves the future? To answer this, I spoke to Jody Andres of Hoffman Architects.  Andres is the lead of K-12 projects at Hoffman Architects, meaning he is the project leader of all school projects they handle. 

The major thing that Mr. Andres stressed is that design is a dialogue. There needs to be communication between the architect, the administration, and the students. Through dialogue, the space evolves and changes to fit the needs of all involved. Dialogue also allows the space to be designed in a way that is adaptive.

A problem with Neenah High School is its lack of flexibility. For example, Andres told me about a school he worked on. The design of this school was similar to the design of Armstrong. It started as an open space and was changed at some point to be closed classrooms. To be successful in that project, the Hoffman team had to completely redesign the space, ripping out everything and starting fresh. The same would have to be done to Armstrong if we truly wanted to fix the issues present.

Andres also stressed the importance of mental and physical health in the modern schooling environment. “Some people think that buildings don’t affect how we think. But that’s absolutely not true,” Andres shared via a phone interview.

Some things he mentioned as important to our mental and physical health include:

  • Providing space to decompress and relax for students and staff
  • Creating different settings for learning 
  • The ability to move and adjust the environment
  • Noise reduction
  • Air quality
  • Most importantly, providing a safe environment

Safety is especially present in today’s world as architects have to respond to challenges such as a global pandemic and rising concern over violence within schools.

Ultimately, while high school students will enjoy a new, modern school that meets current design philosophy and ideals, the middle schoolers will still have to contend with 1960s-era design.

My suggestions would be to overhaul Armstrong to fix noise and temperature control issues, modernize Conant, and take a serious look at overall building maintenance; thus Armstrong is looking at some serious construction to service its middle school population in the future.