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Rebuilt Wheaton High could give community a new face

High schools can form the backbone of community life. They serve as a place of learning, but also as the local sports arena or performing arts center; a polling place or town hall; occasionally, a house of worship. So it makes sense that a high school should occupy a prominent location in the community as well.

That seems to be the thinking behind plans to build a new Wheaton High School, which is one of Montgomery County's oldest, having opened in 1954.

Proposed plan from Grimm + Parker Architects showing a new Wheaton High (left) and Edison High (right), with Randolph Road running along the bottom. Image courtesy of Wheaton Patch.

A few weeks ago, the Board of Education looked at options for rebuilding Wheaton High and the adjacent Thomas Edison High, which has a part-time vocational program.

The favored scheme, according to Wheaton Patch, is one that places each school in its own separate building, one on either side of the building both schools currently share. Not only does this allow construction to take place while classes are in session, minimizing disruption, but it puts Wheaton High School in a more prominent location.

Today, Wheaton and Edison's shared building backs to busy Randolph Road. As cars speed by, all they see of the schools are the football stadium. The county and Calverton-based architects Grimm + Parker, who will design the new campus, propose building a new Wheaton High where the football and baseball fields are today, placing the school right on Randolph Road. This move emphasizes the school's significance to the community, putting it in full view of the thousands of people who come through Randolph each day.

The proposal is also more convenient for students who walk or take public transit to Wheaton High. That's especially important at a school whose catchment area extends as far as Takoma Park and Aspen Hill and where four-fifths of the student body is on free or reduced lunch.

People coming from Randolph Road, served by multiple Metrobus and Ride On bus routes, or the Glenmont Metro station a mile away, would now be able to walk right into the school rather than circle around the entire campus. Making it easier to reach Wheaton High without a car will give students a greater sense of independence and reduce their reliance on rides from parents or friends with driver's licenses who aren't allowed to carry passengers.

Speed Cameras, Randolph at Wheaton High
Speed cameras on Randolph Road. Wheaton High School's football field can be seen at far right.

Bringing Wheaton High up to the street could also help with the issue of speeding along Randolph Road. In 2007, the county placed speed cameras on Randolph behind Wheaton High, arguing that it would improve pedestrian safety. Currently, the only thing motorists see along Randolph Road are trees and the school's fence, the kind of featureless environment that encourages speeding. Grimm + Parker's plans show a new Wheaton High located just a few feet behind the sidewalk, close enough to make drivers more attentive of their surroundings and encouraging them to slow down.

The design for a new Wheaton High isn't perfect. Though the building would be located on Randolph Road, the entrances would face away from the street, allowing buses and cars to drop students off without stopping traffic. But shouldn't a school that's supposed to give a "new fresh start" for Wheaton present itself to the community rather than turning its back on them?

There are few examples of other high schools in Montgomery County that actually face the street, and those that do, like the old Blair High or Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, have been altered so that you enter on the side. Still, I hope that the architects can do things differently at Wheaton.

A new Wheaton High School will be a place to learn and a destination for the community. And by placing the building on one of Wheaton's busiest streets, and creating a prominent entrance on that street, it'll become a treasured landmark as well.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Interesting. That was my high school. I think it had been remodeled sometime in the 80's and late 90's or early 2000's. Possibly even more times.

I'm not sure what the need to split the 2 schools is. The way it was seemed to worked. I'm guessing it's just going to be done in part because the population has grown and in part because Mont Co no longer has that temp school at Arcola & University available, thus requiring construction while classes are held in current building.

Of greatest curiosity is the need to face of the schools on Randolph. Traffic is bad enough there that I think even without the entrance on Randolph, it would cause distractions to drivers.

by Big Money Tony on Jul 12, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

It's nice to finally see a school being built in a community context, if at least somewhat. I agree facing the school on Randolph Road will slow traffic down and perhaps take a few cars off the road by making the school more accessible by public transportation, although there would still be a dead zone where the back of the football field faces the street. Nothing is perfect, I suppose.

by Dave Murphy on Jul 12, 2011 3:06 pm • linkreport

@Big Money Tony

The county wants to slow traffic down on Randolph Road by Wheaton High School. If an entrance on Randolph helps drivers pay attention, then they'll slow down. I used to commute to work that way and I know traffic is nasty, but drivers can still afford to slow down when there's a school nearby.

by dan reed! on Jul 12, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

@Dan Reed
"Wheaton High School's football field can be seen at far right."

Are you sure it's not left?

by thedofc on Jul 12, 2011 5:10 pm • linkreport

Damascus High School also faces the street, though it is set back about 300 feet or so.

by Amit on Jul 12, 2011 7:46 pm • linkreport

As a grad of the old Blair High, the majestic front entrance facing Wayne was a point if pride and a community asset. It's kind of sad that the new Blair is set so far back from the road and not integrated into the community. Especially since we had to fight hard to get the county to build the new building rather than just renovate the old building. Something I imagine the wheaton community will have to do as well to get their building built.

by Falls Church on Jul 12, 2011 10:58 pm • linkreport

@Dan Reed

I'd argue the Randolph facing building would cause more traffic problems. My parents, until recently, still owned the family house their as investment property. When I went in to check on the house/collect rent, I noticed many did not stop for stop signs. Not just the teens, but grown adults. Randolph has always been a traffic problem, at least while I grew up. After a few years, I stopped driving it after I "grew up" at 18 because I really thought it was too dangerous. Since I no longer live there, maybe the past few years have made it easier, but having students standing out in front of the building, even if the driving entrance is on the side road, would cause a great distraction.

Then again, since I am not even a county resident at this time, it's not up to me anymore.

by Big Money Tony on Jul 13, 2011 9:58 am • linkreport

I completely agree that the entrance should be given a more prominent position on the site, better integrating the school to the community. The new TC Williams in Alexandria, while fairly attractive, has an entrance to the side of the building facing a parking lot. Along the main King Street elevation there is little street life at all.

Arlington, VA has done a much better job with it's school redesigns. The new W-L HS by Grimm + Parker faces the football stadium with a heavily used ceremonial entrance, much like the original 1924 building, and the main entrance faces N Stafford St, separated only by a small driveway and some plantings from the sidewalk and street. Similarly the new Yorktown HS by EE&K architects has a very prominent entrance that faces Yorktown Blvd. The firm has also designed a small outdoor amphitheater at the entrance and preserved the parklike setting of the school.

The two schools redesigns embrace the schools' connectedness to the surrounding communities.

The public schools in Arlington do have an advantage over schools in other DC suburbs. The schools are located in dense/moderately dense suburbs and are surrounded by very pedestrian friendly streets. The high school sites in particular also located on sites that have very high visibility

by John on Jul 13, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

Our conclusions to these issues might differ if we adopt an educational view instead of a planning view.

This article doesn't say much (anything?) about how this might affect the school community and education. I'd be interested in reading comments from students, administrators and teachers. Best reason for this proposal I can see so far, is the ability to build a new building without destroying the old one first.

Is the driving concern behind the idea to put the front of the building on a large, fast-moving arterial to help tie the school into the cityscape or to create community inside of the school?

Is the idea to improve pedestrian safety by putting high school students on the streets in greater numbers in hopes that will slow traffic?

Is "circling around the campus," a good enough reason to change location, is it really a deterrent to taking the bus or walking from Metro and do students use the side streets which may be more direct anyway?

If you have a family and are building a house on a lot that borders a quiet street and a busy street, where would you rather have your front door?

by Profe on Jul 17, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

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