Kellam’s classrooms will have removable walls to create large spaces, and glass-enclosed rooms where students can work in small groups while remaining under supervision.

Most years, Chris Freeman’s Advanced Placement Environmental Studies students design a hypothetical, sustainable house for a class project. More recently, they’ve been designing a high school—their own.

That’s how plans for the rebuild of Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Va., came to include courtyards full of vegetable gardens and native swamp plants.

They’re just a few of the features that designers claim make this a school building unlike any other.

Instead of separating English, math, and other departments, the new Kellam will have six “learning communities”—wings that each house multiple subjects, designed to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary learning.

Flexible, open spaces will abound, alongside environmentally friendly, energy-efficient features. And at every step of the way, designers have included ideas from the teachers and students they say best know what a modern school needs.

“We wanted to design the building from the inside out, based on the goals of the educational program,” said Mike Ross, architect of the project with Virginia Beach-based firm HBA. “Rather than starting with the classroom, we started with the learner workstation. Basically, we reinvented what a classroom can and should be.”

Construction began in October. Original plans called for a spring 2014 move-in date, but workers ahead of schedule are now aiming earlier, possibly for not long after Christmas.

Last year, Kellam served about 1,800 students, according to state data; the new facility can house 2,000.

The building will cost $70 million, and the total project—including land, furniture, and technology—will cost $100 million. The price is in line with statewide averages over the past few years, Ross said.

Tony Arnold, director of facilities planning and construction for the division, said with inflation adjustments, it’s comparable to the last high school Virginia Beach bid out—Landstown High School in 1998, for $41 million. Over time, he said, features like geothermal heat and high windows that let in natural light will save money on utilities.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Arnold said. “Ten to 20 years ago, buildings this size were energy hogs. Now they use a lot less.”

(Next page: More about the school’s unique design)