Community Collaboration for Comprehensive Education

Waltham High School
Waltham, MA

Due to a rapidly growing population and an aging facility, the City of Waltham’s existing high school had proven unable to adequately accommodate the needs of their student body. In particular, the City is a hub for immigration, resulting in a student body population that grows throughout the academic year. In addition to space concerns, there was a desire to upgrade facilities for vulnerable populations, as many of these new students enter the school system often having experienced interruptions in their formal education. The District sought a school that would address these concerns, including greater space and amenities for academic and vocational programs such as culinary arts. 

The new 414,800 sf, four-story, energy-efficient school organizes all academic and supplementary programs into teaching and learning clusters centered around core commons spaces for increased collaboration and engagement among the student body. A multi-story Dining Commons hall connects the front door through the building to the Auditorium and Gymnasium while lending a vibrant sense of community and visibility to the overall school environment. The school will also feature a “Newcomer Academy” geared toward educating the District’s increasing SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) population.  

Following an intensive visioning process and research, SMMA’s team was able to incorporate design elements that reflect Waltham’s past, present, and future.

The high school broke ground in September 2020, and is scheduled for completion in 2024. 

Visioning meeting for new Waltham High School project held in SMMA's conference room

Future-Forward Vision

From the outset, the SMMA team was able to connect with a wide range of constituents for a robust visioning process, involving school and district staff, community partners, and students. SMMA hosted a series of visioning meetings over the course of three months. The visioning process helped identify the educational goals for the project to ensure that the district and the larger community goals were working in alignment. Programmatically, the desire to evolve the District’s approach toward more progressive project-based and student-centered learning pedagogy was a key component in shaping the educational plan.

The visioning process spurred the school and the district to acquire a series of grants that were focused on the development and integration of the project-based learning model. The City of Waltham received a Nellie Mae grant to educate teachers and help establish the pedagogical model necessary for project-based learning. As a result, they developed a pilot program called the Change Makers Academy comprised of a subset group of teachers and students to initiate a project-based curriculum that will be employed throughout the school moving forward.

Comprehensive Learning Community

SMMA worked closely with the District on a plan to organize the school into four clusters of learning that integrate both academic and Career and Technical Education (CTE) coursework, including the Humanities, STEAM, Fine and Performing  Arts, and Health and Wellness, and Athletics. To round out these clusters and align with current workplace trends, the project includes provisions for fourteen CTE programs, including four new programs for the school: Cosmetology, Web Development and Programming, HVAC, and Environmental Science. As part of the programming process, SMMA coordinated submissions to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in support of these new areas of instruction.

Hand drawn programming diagram showing different spaces at Waltham High School
Teams screenshot of remote building design collaboration for Waltham High School

Programming in a Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the team shifted to working from home, all team engagement migrated to remote tools and leveraged digital communication and modeling technologies to continue progressing the project development effectively. Learn more about how the Waltham High School team moved to a virtual environment to maximize engagement and move forward. 

Keep Reading
Design for community clusters at new Waltham High School in Waltham, MA

Clustered for Connection

A primary challenge was finding ways to create a deeply integrated educational experience with in a large and diverse program. To bind the four clusters of the building together, the design team utilized the Dining Commons space as a connective thread on the first two floors, allowing this social gathering space to anchor the experience of every student and provide a physical link and visual connection to surrounding environments.

The same approach was used on the third floor with the Media Center. The dynamic center within the school integrates a maker space, café, study rooms, as well as traditional stacks and reading areas, while creating a central connective hub among academic space at upper floors.


These spaces were located to allow for formal and informal meetings and collaboration, increasing opportunities for flexible learning and group projects.  

The academic spaces of the STEAM and Humanities clusters are connected and organized in the form of a curved bar, providing full integration of interdisciplinary learning environments. Math and arts classrooms, science labs, and teacher support spaces are organized around centrally located “hands-on” learning spaces including vocational labs, while corridors are punctuated with light-filled collaboration space. 


3D design of Waltham High School roof garden in Waltham Massachusetts


Artist impression of outdoor courtyard at newly designed Waltham High School

Nature Nurtured

The new school fosters strong connections to nature through its architecture and site design. One of several site challenges for the new Waltham High School was the bank and wetlands that cut directly through the site. The stream  had a massive impact on the project’s site design. Working alongside SMMA’s wetlands consultant, the Site Design team developed a strategy to maintain the existing wetland resources and pose no direct impacts. To improve their quality, SMMA's experts proposed native plantings to stabilize the bank and establish these new resource areas as quickly as possible. 

As well, the building is punctuated by natural daylight views, and access to the surrounding landscape. The site, with its variety of topographical and other natural features, offers many opportunities regarding exterior classrooms, both formal and informal. 

Underground Impact

Typically, civil engineers’ work is not visible, as it pertains to systems and structures often placed underground. In the case of the new Waltham High School, SMMA’s civil engineers worked diligently to design an efficient stormwater management system specifically tailored to the community’s needs, while addressing regulatory requirements. Erin Prestileo, a civil engineer and Director of Site Design at SMMA, explains: 

“I like tailoring stormwater management features to sites and in the studio, we have the opportunity to go one step further and tailor them towards the community by incorporating signage to educate passersby. We also incorporate stormwater management into learning environments for the students and community that use these places.” 

The stormwater management system thus becomes a tool for sustainability and education, raising awareness, reaching beyond its technical components.  

Rendering of Waltham High School in a forested landscape