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Thaden School Campus Rooted in History and Community

November 9, 2017
Clayton Marsh
The architecture and location of Northwest Arkansas’ new independent school are designed to inspire curiosity, invite reflection

What are the ingredients of a great school? Masterful teachers, small class sizes, diverse perspectives and a well-crafted curriculum are essential to creating a powerful culture of teaching and learning. But there must be more.

A great school must also be deeply connected to its surrounding community – the people, history, culture and ecology of the place.

That’s what we aspire to create at Thaden School, a new independent school in Bentonville, Arkansas. Thaden opened to its first students this fall and recently broke ground on construction of its permanent home, a 30-acre campus in the heart of Bentonville’s Market District. From the choice of physical location to the architecture and design of its indoor and outdoor spaces, everything about our campus is intended to ensure that our students develop a real and enduring sense of place.

Beginnings matter. It matters to us that the land upon which we are building our school was the home of the Benton County Fair for nearly 80 years. And it matters that it was also the home of Bentonville High School in the early 1920s, when our namesake, aviator Louise Thaden, was a student there. Our school is born with a history that will continue to enrich the character and content of our connection to this community.

Students speak at the Thaden School groundbreaking ceremony

Too often, independent schools are isolated and insulated from the outside world, hidden behind iron gates at a remove from the communities in which they are situated. While we want our students to be comfortable and secure in their learning environment, we also hope that our campus will be a gathering place for the entire community, true to the site’s history as a fairground where people from all walks of life came together to celebrate the bounty of the land and the vibrancy of its culture.

We love that Thaden will be right in the middle of things – in a thriving downtown district, just a short walk or bike ride from the town square and a number of cultural institutions such as the Brightwater culinary education center and the Momentary, a future contemporary arts center. We believe that learning is strongest at schools where the students have abundant opportunities to make and discover real connections to the world around them. The neighborhood surrounding Thaden is bursting with this potential.

The spirit of community connection also animates the design of our physical campus. Thanks to the Walton Family Foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, we have engaged an architectural team that has the talent and vision to translate our educational philosophy and programmatic innovations into inspiring forms that have deep roots in the history, culture and ecology of Northwest Arkansas. Some of the structures, for example, will have breezeways and latticework that is evocative, but not imitative, of barns and other types of agrarian spaces in the region, while other structures will “pitch and roll” in ways that are poetically suggestive of flight and the school’s connection to the history of aviation.

This convergence of form, function and place are especially exciting in the spaces that will support our signature programs (Meals, Wheels and Reels), each of which builds upon local resources. Our Meals Program, for example, will be outfitted with a teaching kitchen where students can learn about the science, economics and culture of the plate through the preparation of food. And much of this “food for thought” will be grown right here on campus in agricultural spaces, including a greenhouse, so students can study a complete cycle of production, consumption and renewal through composting.

Taking advantage of the region’s extensive network of bike paths and trails, our Wheels Program will feature big, open maker spaces where students can explore principles of mathematics, design and engineering as they make and repair bicycles and other types of wheeled machines under the guidance of master builders. Members of the community will be encouraged to bring their bikes into our maker spaces for service, another point of connection to the life of downtown Bentonville.

And even our Reels Program will have a large outdoor screening space and movie lawn where we can showcase student-made film and visual media. This year our students will begin making short documentaries on the founding of Thaden School and, in connection with that project, will interview community members who have memories and observations regarding the history and transformation of this campus and its surrounding neighborhood.

Our campus design will also make sustainability central to our students’ education. This begins with a landscape that acts as a botanical textbook filled with a diversity of plants, flowers and trees from Arkansas. The buildings will also have dashboards and other features that enable students to monitor their consumption of energy, food and water in ways that will help them appreciate the global impact of local behavior. Many of the buildings will also include reclaimed materials and structures, beginning with the restoration and relocation of Louise Thaden’s childhood home.

In these and so many other ways, we are working to create a campus that will give students roots and wings – strong foundations in the history and culture of their community and soaring aspirations for the future. That is the spirit of this place.

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series recognizing 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has worked with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.
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