Facing west toward the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, The Vanguard School in Colorado Springs provides a dramatic foreground thanks to its royal blue sports field and the dome structure situated nearby.
The 20,000-square foot Monolithic Dome houses twelve classrooms and two science labs for the school’s 215 seventh and eighth graders. “It looks cool,” says student Ciera. “A lot of people see it and wonder what that thing is and I get to tell them it’s the junior high building!”
Ground was broken for the dome in October 2016. It was ready for occupancy slightly more than a year later. Ciera was among the group that moved from the old facility into the dome shortly after the start of the 2017-18 school year. Now an eighth grader, Ciera said, “It’s a lot better than the old school. That was really crowded,”
Why a Dome?
“We knew we wanted a new junior high. The school has been on a steady path of student increase since its inception more than 20 years ago,” Jeff Yocum, operations director, said. “And we were just outgrowing our seventh and eighth facilities.”
The $5.5 million structure was a good fit for the site, and the energy savings will pay back over the next 15 to 20 years, Yocum said. “The cost would have been about the same for traditional construction” but would have lacked the dome’s benefits.
Audrey Szychulski, director of advancement, added, “There are a lot of great reasons why the dome was cost-effective. In the circular shape, it was actually better for utility costs, it allowed for room for growth, too, and traffic flow.”
In addition to the new classrooms and labs, the school has more administrative and storage space.
The Vanguard School
The Vanguard School was established in 1995 as a charter school; part of the Cheyenne Mountain School District. Today there are just under 1,400 K-12 students. It is a public, tuition-free school that follows a classical education curriculum. This, according to the school’s website, “develops the whole person — mind, body, and soul — and therefore requires a total effort. Benefits of this effort include building skills, fluency, coherence, stamina, confidence, resilience, and humility.”
Character classes are part of the daily routine wherein societal attributes, such as gratitude and loyalty among others, are addressed. Cursive writing is taught in kindergarten and students begin learning Latin in fourth grade. Uniforms are required in grades K-8. In high school, a strict dress code is enforced. Programs include fine arts, sports, college prep, and international studies. A large number of extracurricular activities are offered.
Each year, beginning in first grade, students are tested to ensure academic rigor is met. Yocum said, “It’s an intentionally rigorous classical education.”
Last year’s graduating class of 56 students earned more than $4 million in scholarships.
U.S. News & World Report ranked The Vanguard School as sixth best in Colorado for 2017, which it also earned in 2016, and the top high school in the Pikes Peak Region.
“There is a little bit of dome envy but the high school is a state-of-the-art building, too,” Yocum said.
The Junior High School
Szychulski noted, “Kids of junior high age are where they’re going from that transition of being a little more stagnant in the lower grade levels to getting ready to having to move all over the place in high school. So there is nice circular pattern to keep them moving.”
And move they do. Tamara Gallagher, vice principal of The Vanguard School, said it is not unusual for the students to walk as if they’re doing laps. “Sometimes they time themselves,” she said. Recently, a group of about a dozen boys lined up, each holding onto the backpack of the person in front of them to create a train.
What strikes Gallagher most is the sense of community the circle generates and the opportunity it affords the kids to be kids. “We are a very structured school,” she explained. “The students are attentive and engaged in class.” The doors open in the morning at 7:30 with the morning bell ringing at 7:45. Whether changing rooms or arriving early before the first class, their youthful demeanors surface.
“I love, love the dome,” Gallagher said. “I just love how open it is. The hallways are wide and the ceilings are high.” The 12 classrooms all have exterior windows and the two science labs have windows that open to the blue-locker-lined circular corridor. “This design lets us build community every day. What are they going to remember about junior high, I think, will be the hallway and the character classes.”
Blue lockers line one side of the hallway, every classroom, except the labs, has exterior windows. The labs are glassed in so they have their own sense of openness.
Meghan Thompson — an English teacher at the school for eight years — said the dome classrooms are larger. “The classroom gives me more space to move around. That helps me keep kids on track. I love the windows and the natural light that comes into the room. It’s a big, open space.”
While students and staff are pleased with the physical space, administrators cite other benefits, including energy savings and another way of promoting the school. “The V-quill, the Vanguard logo, is a great way of marketing the school,” Yocum said. “The dome is a very unique structure in the Colorado Springs landscape.”
In addition to Vanguard administration, staff, board members and parents, who provided input, Wayne Timura, of Next Level Development, Inc., was the developer and construction manager. He served a similar role for the Vanguard high school construction a few years ago. The project architect was Midwest City, Oklahoma-based Michael McCoy Architects known for its experience with Monolithic Domes. The dome was constructed by contractor South Industries, based in Menan, Idaho. Timura coordinated weekly meetings with all of the involved parties, so the result was truly collaborative, according to Yocum.
Andrew South, vice president and co-founder of South Industries, identified three significant aspects afforded by the structure. “One is freedom of design. Because the dome is a completely open, free-standing structure, there’s no interior support or columns that have to be considered in the design of the interior layout, so there is complete flexibility of design,” he said.
Another element is thermal efficiency. “Because of the materials that were used we maintain a very tight structure maintain its heat.” Resiliency is the third component, South cited. The building can withstand time or UV or impacts from extreme weather conditions.
The weather was a factor during construction. That and the need for more dirt were the only challenges faced during the build phase, according to Yocum. Spring 2017 was a particularly wet one. Otherwise, he said, these were issues, not problems.
“We deliberately held events to celebrate each phase of construction,” Yocum said. These included a groundbreaking ceremony, an open-dome for walk-throughs, an inflation celebration when the membrane was attached to the structure and a ribbon cutting upon completion. The result was a project that was embraced by parents, students and staff.
Of the finished product, Timura said, “Each classroom has its own fan cooling unit. The lighting system is very robust with occupancy sensors and daylight harvesting … We anticipate a 50 percent energy savings over a traditional building.”
Such savings should be the cause of dome envy in other Colorado Springs schools.
Robin Intemann is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she enjoys hiking, reading and spoiling her dog.