2020 | Schools

A look inside the new Seneca Valley High School

State’s largest school is new upcounty hub for career, technical education programs

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An aerial view of the new Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.

Photo via MCPS

Every morning, Marc Cohen walks a lap around Seneca Valley High School, taking in the allure of the state’s newest and largest high school campus.

It’s no small task, as the four-story school spans 440,000 square feet, nearly twice as large as the previous building.

“I just like to see everything, every day, make sure it’s all how it should be,” Cohen, the school’s principal, said of his daily tour. “Plus, it’s just really fun to see.”

Construction was completed this summer, and crews are working on the final touches of a project that has been in the works for more than a decade.

In September 2017, after years of community advocacy, construction began on the $150 million project. The final product more than doubles the school’s capacity to 2,423 students and transforms the facility into the upcounty hub for career and technical education programs (CTE).

Seneca Valley now offers 14 CTE programs, previously only available at the same scale at Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Wheaton, 18 miles away.

Some programs at Seneca Valley include automotive technology, construction, hospitality and tourism, health care, cybersecurity and engineering.

“We had so many students interested in these programs, but Edison was really the only main option, so here at Seneca, we had a lot of kids interested in those programs, but they couldn’t participate,” Cohen said. “Now, they can.”

The athletic stadium at Seneca Valley High School. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

Last year, to help fill the new, expanded school, the Montgomery County Board of Education completed a contentious redistricting process that pulled more families from the Clarksburg and Northwest high school clusters.

About 500 seats are available to students in schools north of Rockville who don’t live within the school boundaries but apply for one of the career programs.

‘Building community’

For now, the school sits mostly empty, its grand opening delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has shifted classes online until at least February.

Teachers had the option to teach their virtual lessons from their new classrooms, but, on Tuesday, nobody did. There’s still too much anxiety about the coronavirus, Cohen said, and staff members seem to be trying to limit their risk of exposure.

So, few have had the opportunity to walk the halls and see the finished product.

But, for many, the athletic stadium, prominent along Wisteria Drive, is Seneca Valley’s crown jewel.

A digital scoreboard towering above the field can broadcast and play back video in slow motion (another new feature that will be student-run). The field, wrapped by a track, is overlooked by glistening bleachers that can seat hundreds.

For Cohen, though, inside is where the real magic happens.

In the cafeteria, you won’t find traditional long, rectangular tables. Instead, there will be more flexible seating like booths and high-top tables. There is a stage where students can perform or do comedy skits for their peers.

“We’re bridging three communities into one, so we wanted strategic seating that will help build a community here,” said Cohen, in his 11th year as principal at Seneca Valley. “Those long, traditional tables don’t really promote that.”

Seneca Valley cafeteria
The cafeteria in the new Seneca Valley High School will have flexible seating to promote community building. (Photo via MCPS)

The environment will be important for all students but will be especially critical for those students who were redistricted to attend Seneca Valley, Cohen said. The redistricting process was strongly contested by some families and the outcome has sparked several lawsuits and appeals.

But, Cohen said he thinks most people are OK with their assignment to Seneca Valley, and is optimistic about the coming years.

“During the whole reboundary process, there were a lot of vocal people who I don’t believe represent the community that they were claiming to represent,” Cohen said, stopping to direct a lost-looking staff member to the main office. “The people I’ve met from our feeder areas have been kind, maybe with some concerns, but … once people give us a shot, they’re usually pretty pleased.”

Learning spaces

Up the main staircase, dozens of classrooms and labs sit, ready for students in general education, international baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, or career and technical education programs. Each is outfitted specifically for the programs for which they are used.

There is an outdoor construction education area, for example, and the architecture labs have equipment that is used in the field. Students in a career program can earn industry-recognized certifications, which is the equivalent of an associate’s degree or prepares them for a career immediately after high school.

Almost every room in the school has grandiose windows to maximize natural lighting. There are two courtyards and a greenhouse, and the roof is covered with vegetation, which helps absorb rainwater and filter air.

“A lot of times, when you have a new school being built, there are corners that should be hidden, per se, but us being in a roadlocked area, there’s main traffic on all the roads” said Jesse Irvin, Seneca Valley’s athletic director and construction liaison. “So I know from the beginning of the design process, we all spoke about [how] there isn’t an area nobody ever sees or that’s hidden in the back. Every part of the school looks as magnificent as the front entrance.”

The front entrance of Seneca Valley High School. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

In various locations throughout the building, there are large — up to 82 inches — screens on which each department can display a message and video. Some screens are interactive, and people can use them to find a map of the school. The screens will be synched with a mobile app, so people at home can see them, too.

“We want people to walk in and say, ‘Wow, this is the technical school,’ ” Irvin said.

‘So much opportunity here’

Seneca Valley will have a wellness center, where students and community members can receive medical care, mental health care and social services.

Over the past few years, wellness centers have been incorporated at schools with large populations of students in poverty or without access to health care. At Seneca Valley, about 40% of students receive free or reduced-priced meals, a data point MCPS uses as an indicator of poverty.

Among other notable features is a gym large enough that it can be split into three sections with movable partitions and a “state-of-the-art, best in the county” theater with enough seating for about 920 people, Cohen said.

There is a loading dock backstage, so large sets and materials can be unloaded and taken on stage easily. Down the hall, there is a black box theater for smaller performances.

“We’ll be the Germantown convention center before we’re done,” Cohen said. “A lot of major events will be held here because of some of the conveniences that have been built in.”

And, still, despite what has already been done, there’s more to do.

The old Seneca Valley building is still standing, taking the space of what will be the front of the new school, a bus loop and baseball fields. It will be demolished in the coming months, with the rest of the project expected to be completed in the next year.

The auditorium at Seneca Valley can seat about 920 people. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice, who represents the Germantown area, said the Seneca Valley project is special to him because he has gotten to see it from start to finish during his time in office.

“It’s really nice to be able to deliver for this community,” Rice said. “When it comes to the community, this is something they’ve deserved for a long time and … now they have a beautiful school that really rivals any school across the state.”

And, Rice said, it’s beneficial to train students for the workforce.

“So, not only are we delivering students a high quality educational institution, but we’re also getting something back so quickly, which will be continuing to see people contribute by being employed, starting businesses and contributing to the tax base, all on top of making sure kids are getting a top-tier education,” Rice said. “There is so much opportunity here.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com