In the Shadow of Disney World, a High School for Tomorrow

By William Montague — June 24, 1987 6 min read

It sounds like a recruiting pitch for a well-endowed college: “Fully equipped marine-biology laboratory, modern computer center, solar-energy design center, industrial-robotics shop, and closed-circuit television system with not one, but two video-production studios.’'

In fact, these are only some of the futuristic facilities that will soon be available to about 2,000 high-school students in Florida’s Orange County school district.

The students, residents of the booming suburbs of Orlando, will be the first to enroll in Dr. Phillips High School when classes begin this fall at its brand-new, $24-million campus.

Set amid the lush Florida landscape less than 10 miles from the Walt Disney World amusement park, the school has features that resemble the park’s popular Epcot Center, a showcase for visions of tomorrow’s technologies.

And like the Epcot Center, Dr. Phillips High School is a model of sorts, a demonstration of how today’s schools can adapt to--and even anticipate--a changing world.

Will personal computers one day be as common in the classroom as chalkboards and erasers? Dr. Phillips is already wired for an electronic-mail network that can connect every terminal in the school. Will satellite transmissions eventually expand the scope of educational television? The school already has its own antenna dish. Will educational theorists decree a wholesale reduction in class sizes? Movable walls make it possible to tailor classrooms accordingly.

Unlike the Epcot Center, however, Dr. Phillips High is more than an imaginative exhibit. When the school opens in August, its 350,000 square feet of floor space will make it Florida’s largest high-school campus. Its 101 faculty members will teach a full range of courses, including an advanced international-studies program that combines classes in foreign languages, literature, economics, and contemporary affairs.

While the school’s enrollment will be drawn entirely from the rapidly growing suburbs southwest of Orlando, the student body will be ethnically diverse, according to Bill Spoone, Dr. Phillips High’s first principal. Slightly more than 60 percent of the school’s students will be white, 34 percent will be black and 4 percent Hispanic, he said.

Orange County school officials point to the new high school as an example of what can be achieved with creative design and the effective use of community resources. Despite its many special features, they say, construction costs were not significantly higher than those of other, more conventional schools.

“We think we have built something that will excite the students and give them a great deal of pride in their school,’' says Bob Gallardo, the district’s director of planning and construction. “But it’s not that the materials are so unusual, it’s the way they have been put together and the concepts involved.’'

Award-Winning Design

The key to building a better school is flexibility, explains Fred Rohrdanz, one of a team of architects and urban planners who pooled their talents to create the school’s award-winning design.

Mr. Rohrdanz’s company, Pierce, Dorsey, and Rohrdanz, and a collaborating firm, Catalyst Architects, were recently honored for their work on the Dr. Phillips school by the Committee on Architecture for Education, a branch of the American Institute of Architects.

Architects from around the country toured the school last week when the A.I.A. held its national convention in Orlando.

“We wanted to design a school that could grow with time and change as the technology changed,’' says Mr. Rohrdanz. “We tried to incorporate that into the design wherever we could.’'

To assist that effort, he adds, the design team took advantage of the tremendous number of technical experts working and living in the Orlando area, such as Disney World’s famed staff of professional futurists, or “imagineers.’'

“We knew that within a 40-mile radius we could find some of the most creative minds in the country,’' Mr. Rohrdanz recalls. “So we went to them and said: ‘What kind of technological changes can we expect to see in the next 10 or 15 years that we should take into account in planning the school’s facilities?’'

According to district officials, a total of eight corporations and government agencies contributed to the project by providing consulting services and allowing the design team and school staff members to tour their own facilities.

Disney World, with its extensive groundskeeping and food-service operations, helped plan the school’s horticultural and culinary-arts facilities. Sea World, an Orlando-based aquatic theme park, assisted with the marine laboratory. A nearby General Electric plant suggested ideas for the robotics lab.

The design team sought advice from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on the school’s communications and computer support systems, according to Mr. Rohrdanz.

“We tried to share with them some of the lessons we’ve learned from our own facilities,’' says Raymond Corey, director of educational programs at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

“We pointed out the areas where we are running into some trouble trying to update things because so many of our needs were not anticipated,’' Mr. Corey explains. “We gave them some recommendations for saving money in the long run when they need to add something.’'

And the immediate costs of such improvements can be surprisingly small, according to Mr. Rohrdanz. While the design team was able to incorporate a number of suggestions into the final design, he says, the added expense totaled only $50,000.

Striking Symbol

The most striking symbol of the innovations that have gone into the school’s design is the soaring, three-story-high fixed canopy that covers the large mall-like park at the center of the campus, an area the school’s designers have dubbed “the commons.’'

The campus’s seven buildings radiate outward from that central core, with classrooms arranged in three great squares, or “pods,’' around interior courtyards.

Enrollment growth, like technological change, is assumed by the school’s design. Each pod is laid out in such a way that an additional two-story annex can be added to one wing, eliminating the need for portable classrooms.

The commons, protected from the semi-tropical Florida sun by the shade of the giant canopy, provides the focal point for the “educational city’’ envisioned by the architectural team.

Just as the canopy connects the buildings that make up the campus, the concept of a self-contained community of teachers and students ties together the various components of the school’s design.

The auditorium, the library, and the music and art studios will constitute a cultural center. The cafeteria and the administrative offices will be the school’s business district, while the classrooms will be its neighborhoods. “A school is more than just a collection of buildings,’' says Mr. Rohrdanz, one of the campus’s architects. “It’s not something static. We wanted to take into account the fact that both cities and schools share a lot of common social functions.’'

In some ways, this design concept echoes the instructional ideas that have led educators at other schools to create elaborate “micro-societies,’' in which students develop and run their own political and economic institutions, often as integral parts of the academic curricula.

At this point, however, Orange County school officials have not gone that far in their plans for Dr. Phillips. They say, however, that such academic experiments could have a place in the school’s future.

“The school is built around the model of a city, so that sort of thing certainly could emerge as we go,’' says James Schott, the district’s superintendent.

In the meantime, Mr. Schott and other officials, including the school’s new principal, are rushing to prepare for a grand opening, now less than two months away.

“It’s an exciting time,’' said Mr. Schott. “It’s a rare opportunity to be able to create something like this.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1987 edition of Education Week as In the Shadow of Disney World, a High School for Tomorrow