‘A Whole World of Stuff We Can Do’

 

Middle School Campus Begins Transformation with Arts & World Languages Center Opening

STORY BY LESLIE KING // VIDEO BY JESSE PADDOCK, KAITLYN KUSHNER ’22 AND DAVE CHANDLER // PHOTOGRAPHY BY MELODY GUYTON BUTTS
 

Spring 2021 marked a major milestone at Durham Academy Middle School. The first phase of a complete reimagination of the Middle School campus — the Arts & World Languages Center — was completed in early March. The 42,000-square-foot facility, which houses all fine and performing arts disciplines, all Middle School world languages classrooms and a performing arts center (Horton Hall), opened to Middle School students on March 22.

“I’m pinching myself right now, knowing that the Arts & World Languages Center (AWL) will be full of students tomorrow,” Middle School Director Jon Meredith said in an email to families the night before its opening. “It has been years of planning: student, faculty, family and trustee input helped determine the purpose and general layout of this building. Talented architects, builders and craftsmen contributed to making it a reality. Generations of DA supporters gave generously to fund the project. Students and teachers tolerated incessant noise, 13 teachers packed and moved rooms (in the midst of a pandemic year) and many, many brains have been working on overdrive to iron out the many details that must be considered when opening a facility during the high season of a school year.”

The timing couldn’t have been better — the additional instructional space allowed the Middle School to shift from hybrid to 100% on-campus instruction before the end of the school year. The entire fifth grade class returned on March 29, and sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were phased in gradually, reaching full capacity by April 20. The shift marked the first time all Middle Schoolers were on campus simultaneously in over a year.

“I really like the entrance, and it feels really welcoming with the grand staircase and all the open area,” Ashley Slomianyj ’26 said in a tour just prior to the building’s opening.

“I think it’s really cool that we have so much light and windows so we can see out and it’s not just an enclosed space,” Ethan Williams ’28 said.

Arts and world languages teachers worked hard over DA’s spring break to set up their classrooms to welcome students, and after years spent imagining the potential of purpose-built spaces and interdisciplinary possibilities made possible by proximity to their colleagues for the first time, they were thrilled with the result.

“The need is tremendous,” French teacher Teresa Engebretsen said. “For us to have classrooms with storage and classrooms that have a sink, a dedicated place for my advisees to have their stuff … this is huge.”

“I pinched myself when I heard we were the first building,” theatre teacher Ellen Brown added. “I am so excited to be in the same building as my fine arts colleagues. … I think that this new building is going to give students the opportunity to collaborate in ways that support their work more meaningfully than ever before.”

“One of the most important parts of teaching is setting up an environment for success,” band teacher Andrew Lovett said. “We’ll be able to maybe do some full musicals. I would love it if maybe one day [chorus teacher] Karen [Richardson] and Ellen and I could have a full pit [orchestra]. There’s a whole world of stuff we can do.”

“This is going to elevate us and we’re just extremely grateful,” movement teacher Mary Norkus said. “We can’t believe that we are Phase 1 of the [Middle School] building projects — we’re just over the world about it.”

The icing on the cake is Horton Hall, a state-of-the-art 500-plus-seat performing arts and special events space that is now the largest event space on any DA campus. Its open floor plan and catering kitchen will allow for a variety of different events, including graduations. Horton Hall is dedicated to Alice and Trig Horton by their children (Ashley Freedman ’97, Ward Horton ’94 and Laura Virkler ’91) and by the F.M. Kirby Foundation to honor their commitment to philanthropy and their passion and commitment to Durham Academy.

“We have built a new space full of purpose-driven classrooms that will allow each teacher to teach their subject with creativity, imagination and innovation,” said Virkler — who serves as the chair of DA’s Buildings and Grounds Committee, which is charged with helming the design and construction of the six phases of Upper and Middle School capital projects. Virkler is also the mother of a DA alumna, a Middle Schooler and an Upper Schooler. “DA Middle Schoolers now have the space to explore and embrace these subjects. Having been a student on the campus myself over 25 years ago, I can appreciate how much this new building enhances Middle School learning.”

During a preview of the space, students were already envisioning future productions with anticipation. “I really like Horton Hall,” Jaden Read ’25 said. “I feel like we could have a lot of really good performances in there, and there’s a lot of good space and lighting.”

Every aspect and angle of the two-year project was meticulously documented from start to finish by Dave Chandler, husband of former Lower School PE teacher and current varsity field hockey coach Judy Chandler and father of two DA alumni. Chandler, at the time an amateur drone pilot, started filming construction in May 2019 for Middle School science teacher Barb Kanoy’s Science in Action elective, in which students studied how changes to the campus would affect the ecology of the greater community over the short and long term.

When COVID-19 forced the closure of DA’s campuses in March 2020, Chandler and his drone became the students’ eyes and ears, filming from afar every Sunday to document the building’s development through aerial photos and video — not just for DA, but for the construction and architectural firms as well. His work generated more than 6,000 photos and videos over the span of two years.

This spring, Chandler partnered with Kaitlyn Kushner ’22 — who honed her video-editing skills as one of the inaugural recipients of a Jack Linger ’20 Independent Study Fund grant — to produce a video detailing the transformation of the Middle School campus from start to finish.

“As the project neared completion, I was hoping to produce a short, impactful video from the collection that summarized the construction of the building as well as the positive impact on education,” Chandler explained. “After seeing Kaitlyn’s independent study presentation on Commercial Application for Video, I knew where to find the production talent I needed!”

Using Chandler’s and DA videographer Jesse Paddock’s footage, Kushner showcased key construction milestones, created unique time-lapse sequences, segued between before and after shots and integrated interesting facts about the project. “The impact that the AWL Center has reaches well beyond Durham Academy’s Middle School campus,” she reflected. “Having the opportunity to work on the AWL Center video with Mr. Chandler has been a truly amazing experience that has allowed me to sharpen both my video editing and collaboration skills as well as being able to see the important connections between the two.”

The $12 million “A-W-L” (as it’s been affectionately nicknamed), designed by Cannon Architects and built by CT Wilson Construction, was made possible through a combination of financing and fundraising. On July 1, Taylor Hall and “the 200 building” (the two adjacent classroom buildings that run parallel to University Drive) will be demolished to make way for construction of Phase 4 — a two-story academic and administrative building. The building will reorient the Middle School campus, serving as its “front door” with a new campus entrance on University Drive. Plans call for Phase 4 to be finished by December 2022.

Major features of Phase 4 include the following:

  • 22 science, math and humanities classrooms
  • 1 makerspace
  • Two-story commons similar to Upper School STEM & Humanities and Middle School Arts & World Languages Centers
  • Multipurpose gathering space
  • Middle School administrativeoffices
  • Business offices
  • Security office
  • Parents Association meeting room

Phase 5 will create a new library and humanities building, and Phase 6 will create a new, regulation-size Middle School gym with built-in seating and expanded Extended Day facilities.

Ultimately, the Middle School will consist of new buildings surrounding a central, open quad. Successive phases of the Middle School capital projects have an estimated cost of $21 million and will depend almost entirely on philanthropic efforts.

Go inside for the Arts & World Language Center’s Opening Day.

Watch a recap of the Arts & World Languages Center’s construction and completion by Kaitlyn Kushner ’22, Dave Chandler and Jesse Paddock.


  • 1,185 cubic yards of concrete
  • 327 tons of steel
  • 110,000 bricks and blocks
  • 44,000 total square feet
  • 13 classrooms
  • 5 fine and performing arts studios
  • 8 world language classrooms
  • 730 days of construction
  • 400 builders and architects
  • 73 donors
  • 45 building/contractor firms
  • 8 architecture/
  • engineering firms
  • 400-plus workers
  • 100,000-plus labor hours
  • 459 grateful students and teachers