A Charter School’s Renovated Campus Foregrounds Physical and Mental Wellness
Designed by HMFH Architects, the new outpost for Bridge Boston Charter School supports students and their families both in and out of the classroom.
“A modern plan is successful only when it embraces every human need,” wrote architecture critic Lewis Mumford in The Culture of Cities in 1938. Nowhere is this truer than in elementary education. Take Bridge Boston Charter School (BBCS) in the city’s Roxbury neighborhood, completed by HMFH Architects in 2017. A substantial percentage of the pre-K–8 school’s 335 students are from families that are homeless or facing challenges such as alcoholism or addiction. A newly renovated home for BBCS provides the equipment for academic success, engenders neighborhood pride, and in so doing helps fulfill the school’s mission: “To remove the health and social obstacles that hinder student learning.”
Significantly, both physical and mental wellness are embedded in the school’s programs and the building’s design. In addition to free, healthy meals and physical education—with the requisite kitchen and gym facilities—the Program in Education Afterschool and Resiliency was developed to address bullying, substance abuse, and student anxiety and depression. The newly reimagined building’s bright, upbeat spaces make for a fertile backdrop in this effort.
It wasn’t easy getting to this point. Principal Jennifer Daly remembers opening the school in 2011 in rented space in a Baptist church. “We were in one room with a single light switch,” she recalls. Another lackluster space followed. But in 2014, a real estate agent took her to see a shuttered community health center that seemed to hold some potential as a permanent home for the school.
HMFH Architects of Boston, in a $25 million project, transformed the building by adding space, constructing a gymnasium and a playground, and most of all, renovating an existing atrium that would become the heart and soul of the school. “The existing building was a Brutalist bunker broken up into small clinical spaces,” says Laura Wernick, senior principal at HMFH. “The challenge was opening it up and making it warm and welcoming for students in the most vulnerable situations.”
The most impactful part of the project, Daly explains, was the architects’ efforts “to give the building a center.” The atrium also serves as a library and meeting place. Notches in the balconies are filled in with glass, encouraging students to wave across the lighted expanse. Catwalks connect the brick core to the rest of the building—a fact not lost on the students, staff, or architects. “We’ve got actual bridges to match the metaphorical bridges,” says Wernick.
In the new space, not only are physical and mental needs addressed, but the arts and science programs can thrive as well. Through grants, BBCS has acquired equipment to stock its new large STEM classroom spaces. And an acoustically tuned music room accommodates a program unique to the school: All students receive string instruments. The top floor is dedicated to an art studio. Although classes run standard hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the building also facilitates nighttime use by families facing challenges at home, who often gather in the atrium in the evenings for meetings and fellowship.
“All of us are really focused on the families’ strengths,” Daly says. “That we can all gather in a well-lit space filled with books is just like ice cream on a Sunday.”
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