Schools Towering pride

Year 7 students at the new Prahran High School. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Strolling through the swishing glass doors on High Street and into Prahran High School (PHS), you’ll find a foyer that looks not entirely unlike that of any other school. Take a few more steps, though, past the library and into the building’s vast, light-filled atrium, and you’re suddenly on the set of a science fiction movie. High above, teal-coloured script daubed on a glass wall says: “MAKE AN IMPACT.” It sure does.

Part of a new wave of vertical schools designed to address urban density, the 9,200sqm building opened in January, apparently boasting the smallest school footprint in the state, arranged in a P-formation that matches the emblem. This year’s first intake of Year 7 kids currently rattle around a tower that will ultimately accommodate 650 students.

With its five floors, sound-proofed specialist teaching spaces and a giant-stepped assembly spot (that doubles as a theatrical amphitheatre), it feels more like a university campus.

“There’s obviously a lot of similarities to other schools in terms of the teaching and learning, and that being the most important thing that’s happening in here – but, on the other hand, it’s a phenomenal space.”

Prahran High School. Photos: Meredith O'Shea

“We expected some challenges, but the students have taken a really mature approach to it,” says assistant principal James Fidler, whose pride in the new building shines through. “We have to trust them in the space because it’s so big, but that has helped us to reinforce the kind of responsible culture that we want.”

Even the classrooms look different, some intersected by the walkway that winds up and around the building. “There’s obviously a lot of similarities to other schools in terms of the teaching and learning but, on the other hand, it’s a phenomenal space that opens you up to thinking about things a little bit differently.”

One concern about the new wave of vertical schools is the lack of a traditional oval and whether that will impact on student health. Here, Prahran has taken a typically innovative approach.Departments are spread across each level, meaning students will keep fit getting about the building, though there are lifts for accessibility. “One of the great benefits is you’re getting your steps up during the day,” James says.

Prahran High School Assistant Principal James Fidler. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

There’s also a reciprocal arrangement with the nearby Victorian College of the Deaf to use their green space. This has the added bonus of introducing students to a differently-abled cohort. Add in a huge basketball court with structured sporting activities like a badminton tournament every lunch, plus plenty of fresh-air breakout balconies and the rooftop garden with its startling views, and there’s no shortage of healthy options.

“What we lack in terms of access to our own oval, we have in different opportunities,” James says. “We’re building community connections. Chapel Street is literally metres away, so we’re connecting with restaurants and cafes and feeding that into our food technology classes.”

Once the kids get to Year 9 and 10, they will start to work with the neighbouring Melbourne Polytechnic. James and principal Nathan Chisholm have picked the brains of colleagues over at fellow vertical Richmond High School too. “They’re a year ahead of us, though they got their building this year too, so we’ve drawn close connections with them,” James says.

Year 7 students at Prahran High School. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Walking around, it’s easy to see how the wow factor of the school tower bleeds into student creativity. One wall is punctuated by vibrant artworks that draw on the sweeping lines of the building itself. “When the Year 7s came in, they felt special because they’re going to high school, but also because they had this beautiful building that was theirs, that they were going to get to grow and develop with. They were proud pioneers in the new space.”

The open spaces have attracted similarly adventurous young teachers who embrace unique approaches. “There’s a collaborative approach that’s just sort of evolved naturally,” James says. “People see a space like this and think of the wonderful possibilities.”

The school, which won a major School Design Award this year, has also been embraced by parents, many of whom took part in a long-running campaign for a new public secondary school in the area. Booming birth rates and rapid growth in apartment developments had created a strong need for a local school to meet the demand. Before Prahran High was built, the nearest co-educational public high school was Elwood Secondary College, five kilometres away.

“It’s a big decision for parents to send their kids to a new type of school like this, but they’ve been incredibly supportive,” says James. “They share that sense of pride in the building and we love bringing them in for showcase evenings and performances, so they can see how the spaces support those sorts of things.”

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