By Sue Botos
Unless a student is one of the “popular kids” or an athlete, the high school cafeteria can be a major source of social anxiety for teens. Everyone wants to sit at the best table, which usually holds about eight, and woe to the “outcasts” or new kids who must try to fit in or be stuck with the embarrassment of sitting alone.The newly remodeled eating space at Magnificat High School seeks to do away with these social stigmas by offering students of variety of seating arrangements, as well as a restaurant-quality kitchen and a number of “green technology” features.
When Magnificat president Renata Rafferty first saw the completed project, she recalled some old memories. “I had the same reaction that a lot of people had, which was, ‘I want to go back to high school and I want it to be this high school.’ That’s a very common reaction, and I had the same one. I remembered my cafeteria in my Catholic all-girl high school and not just the environment but the whole social stratification that was built into place by the way cafeterias used to be,” she said during a recent tour.
The cafeteria renovation was the second of a three-part, multimillion-dollar project, “Surround Learning,” a term coined by Magnificat’s Sister Helen Jean Novy. Amy Arbogast, vice president of finance and administration, explained that the goal of the concept is to provide a more collegelike environment, where traditional high school barriers are removed.
“The point is, you fit where you choose to fit,” she stated.
Arbogast went on to explain that the psychology behind Surround Leaning is the relationship between students and learning space. The idea is to provide for a variety of learning styles. For example, part one of the project, the Humility of Mary Center, formerly the library, allows for quiet work space. The new commons (cafeteria) is “not just for lunch anymore,” allowing a spot for group and “high stimulus” activities.
Phase three, Rafferty said, will be a quiet reading zone. “We also want, in this technologically fierce society, to have the students understand and respect the gift of peace and how to use silence, because our kids are forgetting that,” she noted.
The Surround Learning project worked within the school’s current footprint, Arbogast emphasized. She added that representatives from Fielding Nair, the architectural firm that designed the project, initially observed the places in the school where students congregated for group or individual activities and based much of their plan on these findings.
Aside from more natural light and open space, a new configuration for cafeteria seating was included in the plans. Students can now opt for colorful two-person booths, which line the courtyard windows, or the “media perch,” which allows single students to sit at a counter and recharge their electronic devices. More traditional multistudent tables are available in varied shapes.
Arbogast pointed out several energy-saving features, including solar tubes in the ceiling, which direct natural light into the building, and a water bottle filling fountain that records the number of plastic bottles saved by the use of reusable containers. A sectioned recycling station provides an alternative to traditional trash cans.
Senior Megan Fenner, who posted blog reports on the construction progress during the summer, noted the sound-muffling baffles, or “clouds,” hanging from the ceiling. “A lot more people are in here more often. The noise level is really down,” she said.
A stage for speeches and presentation and a monitor’s desk, where parents can drop off lunches and other forgotten items at any time of day, are also featured.
Chef Adam Wilson, who has served up lunch at Magnificat for three years, stated that his new kitchen rivals any he has seen in restaurants. “It makes my life easier,” he stated. In addition, the traditional lunch line is gone, replaced by areas offering salads, soup, fresh pizza, entrees and “grab and go” wraps, sandwiches and salads. But some things haven’t changed, particularly the teens’ appetite for unhealthy foods. “I use ‘stealth health,’” Wilson noted, explaining that he often sneaks in more-nutritious ingredients, like whole-wheat breading on the chicken nuggets and whole-grain pizza dough.
While students have settled into their newly designed environment, Rafferty said they were a bit overwhelmed initially. “The first morning was really interesting. They stood outside the space and just looked in,” she recalled, adding that students said that they “didn’t want to wreck it.”
“It was cool, it was cute, but it was quite profound watching their initial interactions with the space,” Rafferty stated.