New in our portfolio: Learning spaces that foster skill building

When designing an alternative high school, it’s natural to do things a little different. For the new Willard Alternative High School, part of Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) in Montana, the team worked to create a fun, funky, colorful, and spacious environment that would be comfortable and welcoming to students transitioning to a “new home.” Most importantly, it needed to house the spaces, resources, and technology that would help propel students into fulfilling futures.

Working closely with MCPS, one of the unique elements of the process was partnering with Willard’s Education Innovation Team (EIT). The EIT provided the “inside scoop”— key insight into what staff valued most about the old school, what was needed in the new facility, and the importance of meeting educational, social, and emotional needs as part of the place-making and facility design.

Mirroring an ideal learning environment, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity were all at the forefront of the process, with the end goal to create flexible learning environments that inspire student growth.

“Throughout the entire process, Willard’s EIT members, 15 in all, were treated as equals,” said Principal Kevin Ritchlin. “Our ideas were validated, encouraged, and incorporated in the final design.”

Willard has the highest percentage of students who stay in the Missoula community after graduation, so it was important to give them the opportunity to gain hands-on experience and life-long skills. Thus, the team included a family resource center, culinary space, art and music facilities, science lab, and garden areas in the design. An outdoor amphitheater, multipurpose spaces, and breakout areas encourage social activity and community. Fourteen state-of-the-art, light-filled classrooms ensure plenty of space and attention for each student.

The new Willard Alternative High School has science labs, a fully operational culinary lab, music rehearsal rooms, a gym area, individual study pods, maker-spaces for students interested in building projects, and more.

Welcoming staff, students, and visitors alike as they come into the school are the “Willard Windows,” a two-story bank of windows in the common area, which look out at the North Hills. Art panels created by Willard students that were brought from the old building line the entryway and add a sense of continuity to the new space.

The bright open space welcomes students and visitors with art panels in the entryway and natural light coming through the windows.

The resulting 28,500 sq. ft. high school, which serves 150 students, is a vast improvement from the original high school built in 1922 and designed as an elementary school. Willard is all grown up and equipped to provide the resources students need to be successful in today’s world.

We couldn’t be happier to contribute to a place and people so vital to Missoula’s future.