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With kindergarten tuition that pushes $30K, a swanky building is a must

In a town where school doors are far more likely to close than open, a new school is under construction in Lakeshore East.

In fact, Gems World Academy is two brand-new high-rises, complete with a digital theater, robotics lab and 3-D design studio — features to further the school network’s emphasis on creativity and enterprise.

Gems is a Dubai-based K-12 private school network with locations in United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Switzerland and Uganda. The Chicago school, designed by bKL Architecture, will be the first in the U.S. when it opens next fall to 350 kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Enrollment opened earlier this month.

The first phase of Gems Chicago, now under construction at 350 E. South Water St., is a nine-story, 82,000-square-foot building scheduled for completion in early summer. Later this year, Gems will begin construction of a 12-story, 240,000-square-foot spot for grades six through 12 at 355 Upper E. Wacker Drive. Tuition will be near the high end for private schools in Chicago: $28,800 to $33,300 for the 2014-15 school year.

One side of Gems’ first building faces Wacker, another faces a park and the two sides face other buildings. So Gems needed to be chameleonlike to blend with its different views, as well as keep it all kid-friendly. The answer: color, says Tom Kerwin, principal at Chicago-based bKL. The firm designed the facade in shades of gray, blue, red and yellow.

“Because phase one is the K-[5] school and it faces the park, it has a little bit more playful notion in terms of color,” he says. “The facade that faces Wacker is more subdued, but still is colorful.”

Playful on the outside, but the inside resembles a high-tech university for kids. Plans for the school include high-tech science labs and studios for textiles, art and dance — all of which are a part of the school’s “creative and entrepreneurial focus,” says head of school Geoff Jones. Playtime will happen on the school’s rooftop playground or at any of the nearby parks.

Even areas like the cafeteria aren’t shunned to darker, less attractive parts of the building.

“The school dining facility is not a cafeteria in a basement,” Kerwin says. “It’s an integral part to the design, and it’s a space that is very prominent in terms of where it is located in the building, its access to views, its access to outdoor space, terraces and also the ability for it to be flexible, to be used for other things when its not being used as dining.”

Students will spend time in a traditional classroom setting, but breakout areas in hallways and specialized rooms will also be in place for small groups and one-on-one meetings.

“In traditional classrooms, teachers would talk all day or talk through the whole class,” says Susan Whitmer, a Florida-based consultant who designs educational facilities with Herman Miller. “By having breakout rooms, you’re giving students content or a discussion question so that they can work together to solve problems.”

Getting kids in and out of the building presented challenges. Because of Gems’ busy location, pickup and dropoff will happen via Sub Lower Wacker Drive, not in front of the school.

Once the kids are in, traffic’s an issue all over again.

“We’ve done a lot of analysis on how students and teachers will circulate through the school with the use of elevators and stairs,” Kerwin says. “It’s a unique building type, a high-rise school. There are not many built.”