The idea behind ISI dates back to 1991 when a group of community leaders identified an International School as essential to supporting the central Indiana community economically, socially, and culturally.
ISI administrators said the vision of the Chen Family Lower School extends beyond the construction of a single facility.
“[Our vision] was to create a unified campus intended to usher in a new level of excellence that will become the hallmark of the next quarter century of greatness at ISI and in Indianapolis and Indiana,” said Kristen Kaiser, Vice President of Advancement & External Relations at ISI. “The addition of the Chen Family Lower School on our Michigan Road campus means that all ISI students, 3 years-old through Grade 12, can learn together on a single campus, creating new synergy and consistency of experience, and an environment better suited to mentoring and other forms of meaningful and authentic engagement between our students across grade levels and our faculty members across disciplines.”
Students and staff at the International School hail from countries around the world.
“It really is this mix of cultures that is real; From the staff to the teachers, to the families, to the kids,” said Sarah Hempstead, CEO and Principal at Schmidt Associates. “I had dinner with International School friends last night, and at the table, there was a German family, a Puerto Rican family, and us. And that's just normal as a part of that community. But it's not normal, really, for Central Indiana.”
Echoing this mission, Schmidt Associates incorporated distinctive design elements to familiarize kids with the state of Indiana.
Tucked behind the Lower School building and adjacent to the track and field, the playground is bordered by berms that make a natural fence. It features a greenhouse, a garden, a versacourt, basketball courts, and two playground areas – one for pre-elementary students, and a second for elementary students.
But its most unique feature can be seen if you look closely.
“The playground is very different from any playground you would ever see in a public school. There's a running river with boulders, there are gardens for kids to explore, it's shaped in the shape of Indiana,” said Lisa Gomperts, Principal at Schmidt Associates. “So, it's a learning experience, while at the same time it's a play experience.”
A garden and play space in the shape of Indiana is featured in the middle of the playground. Garden beds in the northern part of the state are filled with plants native to Indiana, while southern parts of the state feature mounds covered in synthetic grass representing the terrain of southern Indiana.
“That is nondirective play,” Hempstead said. “Really, it's about each kid having the ability to choose how to play within that space, which is important.”
A water feature representing the Ohio River allows students to play in the stream that runs through the playground.
“I've had other clients now ask how they can get a water feature like that,” Hempstead said. “That is not an easy thing to integrate into a playground. It requires teachers who get why it's important. But it is such a great learning tool. [Students] can build dams, they can build boats, they can do races, and it's just fun.”
In the center of the Indiana-shaped playground stands a sculpture of the globe that illustrates the connection between ISI and the world – a reminder of the school’s founding purpose.
On the exterior of the gymnasium is a globe mural that wraps around the North and East façade, which Gomperts calls “a distinguishing marker for the school.” Gomperts said the outdoor mural acts not only as a branding element for the school, but as an art piece that makes a statement for Michigan Road, a major thoroughfare in Indianapolis.
Carefully selected graphics, murals, and colors are integrated throughout the Chen Lower School to promote global-mindedness and evoke pride for ISI’s school culture. Upon entering the main lobby, students are greeted by dozens of national flags displayed across the walls to represent the various regions studied in ISI’s curriculum.
“The expansive lobby is a ‘Wow’,” Kaiser said. “With tall ceilings, a concert style staircase, a two-story slide, creative seating areas, and custom built-ins and display boards to showcase student work, the space promotes connection, creative use, and is truly a multipurpose space that serves our entire school community.”
“Implementing some fun uses of colors for the branding of ISI was a big part of this project, as [administrators] worked so hard on branding for the International School campus overall,” said Liam Keesling, Interior Designer at Schmidt Associates. “What makes the Lower School stand out amongst them is we were able to take the colors and use them strategically throughout the spaces to really captivate and hold true to what the study center is doing.”
Colors on the walls and floors of hallways are not only aesthetic design features but are also used as teaching tools.
“Those little ones are learning all the colors in a language that is not their native language,” Hempstead said. “So, I've seen teachers tell students to ‘hagan una fila en la línea roja', and they see who figures out what roja is.”
Generous space is dedicated to showcasing student artwork and projects. Strategically placed tack boards throughout the corridors give students public platforms to showcase their art. In addition, student-created art pieces that were previously displayed in the 49th street facility were brought into the new space and are now exhibited in the hallway that leads students to the playground.
The curriculum at ISI is heavily influenced by the three different language tracks it offers: Mandarin, French, and Spanish. Focusing on French, Spanish and Mandarin cultures, Schmidt designed the media center to promote cultural inclusion and spark creativity.
“When we started working on the library, children were asked to draw their ideas and we discussed what we wanted the library to look like and how we wanted it to function,” Kaiser said. “We took the ideas back to the designers and they helped us reach our goal of creating a space that feels like another world and transports your imagination to different places just like a good book.”
A spherical structure in the center of the library acts as a stylized globe where students can curl up with a book or look around to observe the various cultures represented throughout the library.
A graphic of the Great Wall of China on the eastern wall of the library, along with a miniature Chinese pagoda overlooking the lobby serve as physical reminders of Mandarin culture. Just a few steps away, a large wooden structure shaped like the Eiffel Tower represents the French language track.
Small nooks designed with a stucco exterior and arches make up the south wall of the library and resemble architecture found in famous Spanish plazas around the world. On the north wall, colored wooden bookshelves spell out the word ‘Global’.
The flooring and ceiling in the library further Schmidt’s goal of incorporating outdoor elements into the building, with carpet patterns and colors representing grass, pavers, pebble stones, and blue ceiling tiles and handing clouds.
LED lighting installed throughout the building is set up in scenes. Hempstead said lighting controls allow staff to adjust a room’s lighting as the natural daylight changes throughout the day. Teachers can also pick preset scenes for concentration and study, or for relaxation and naptime.
Much like language, dance and song are essential components of the learning culture at ISI. A dual-sided stage opens onto both the cafeteria and the gym, creating a flexible environment for students to ‘perform to learn.’
“End of Unit Celebrations and assemblies are so important to our community,” Kaiser said. “The double-sided stage gives us the versatility to host a smaller assembly in the cafeteria, or to host a large assembly in the gymnasium.”
Hempstead said ISI can even host ‘theater in the round’ performances by opening the stage up to both the cafeteria and the gym.
“When we began this project, we wanted the school, both in its curricular offerings and physical presence, to be a point of pride, not just for our students, families and employees, but for Central Indiana,” Kaiser said. “The love and detail that went into this design are hard to quantify in words. It took us two decades to bring this vision to life, but it was truly worth the wait.”
Photos courtesy of Megan Ratts Photography