Believe it or not, a brand new school or an old school that has received major renovations to make it a state-of-the-art educational facility can be a district's worst nightmare. It's not because of the price tag of the construction or renovation--which will total millions of dollars. Nor is it because of the disruption, mess or bother that goes along with such a monumental effort.
The nightmare comes in the form of angry parents, disappointed faculty and staff and students who aren't performing well in other district schools. It comes not from the new building, but from the existing schools.
The good news is that this scenario can be avoided by working to assure that facilities are equitable throughout your district. School administrators have had to consider equity between facilities for as long as there have been multiple school buildings in districts. Considering the comparative quality of facilities--by parents, staff and even students themselves--is crucial in avoiding the wrath of irate parents whose children aren't going to the brand new building.
The equality issue typically comes up when a new school is built in a community and the other schools seem to pale in comparison. It can also stir controversy when one school gets a major renovation and others don't. District and community discord over equity arises, too, when one school gets a simple addition of classroom space or equipment and the other schools are left out.
So how do you assure equity in your district? Here's what experts and administrators suggest:
Plan all construction efforts simultaneously To increase space in one of its elementary schools, Libertyville (Ill.) School District 70 opted to relocate its district administration offices into a new building. Superintendent Mark Friedman realized the district's middle school, which had received several renovations since the 1950s, was in need of a major upgrade.
"I said, 'If we're going to do it, let's do everything at the same time,' and that's what happened," Friedman explained. Within three years, the elementary school that had housed the administrative offices was renovated and received additional classrooms, the other elementary schools were remodeled and the central office was relocated into a new building on a school campus. Highland Middle School received a new facade, air conditioning in the new sections, additional and re-configured classrooms, computer and science labs and additional locker space.
"People really feel good about our facilities and the facility upkeep that we practice," Friedman notes. The proof is in the polling: "On our recent parent satisfaction survey, our facility question received a 98 percent 'highly satisfied' rating. This was just about the highest rating of all the 60 questions that were asked."
Get the word out about the construction or renovation early Through public forums and the media, communicate the project's scope, says Brad Paulsen, director of educational services for Wight & Company, a Darien, Ill.-based design and construction firm. "Make sure you address the important issues. Have a Web page link to the project that provides details on the scope of work."
Make equity a part of the process from the beginning If you don't consider building equity up front, when you're establishing the vision for the building program, you'll wind up with a lot of angry parents down the road, says Michael Hall, chief marketing officer of the architectural, engineering and consulting firm Fanning/Howey Associates.
Curricular equity is a big part of the calculation. Evaluate your facilities in light of what's being taught across the district, and then come up with a list of modifications that would standardize that curriculum, he advises. "That curricular discussion is critical to achieving any real equity district-wide," Hall notes. "You don't want to put the cart before the horse."
"The school district can't compromise what it delivers educationally based on the restrictions of the facility," Paulsen adds. Communities expect all schools to offer a similar scope of curriculum.
Get the community involved in building-related discussions right from the get-go "Engage the community in the initial facilities planning discussions so they understand the issues and cost implications," Hall explains. Involve parents, teaching professionals and even students in the discussions and the plans. Encourage their input and take their ideas and suggestions into consideration. "Basically, the entire community becomes the client," Hall adds.
Add the same elements to each school Careful attention to detail can demonstrate a commitment to facilities equity across the district. Valley View School District 365U, which serves Bolingbrook and Romeoville in Illinois, built a brand new high school in the growing Bolingbrook community and did some major renovations to the Romeoville school at the same time. Gregg Worrell, assistant superintendent for administrative services, says he paid careful attention to giving the same equipment and providing the same amenities to both high schools.
One place this is evident is the cafeteria. "When we renovated Romeoville's high school, we installed the same [variety] of cafeteria seating--booths, bistro tables and normal seating--that we installed at the new school," Worrell explains. "We're also equitable with technology. We put the same 32-inch TVs in each classroom at both schools." And, since a field house was part of the plan for Bolingbrook, Romeoville's high school got one, too.
Boost the perception of equity through small fixes or additions Equipping an older school with extra technology or revitalizing a media center can help make an existing facility seem up to par with a newer school building. "One thing a lot of people see as a parity issue is air conditioning," points out Carol Pugh, a partner in the Illinois-based architecture firm GreenAssociates.
Take into account both actual school size and enrollment When a district is building a new auditorium for a large high school, for instance, a similarly-sized auditorium wouldn't be appropriate for a much smaller high school. When considering equity, think about proportion, Worrell says.
"Romeoville now has 1,700 students and Bolingbrook now has 3,100 students enrolled. If the population of one school is much smaller, the auditorium, gym and field house, for in-stance, shouldn't be the same size as in the larger school," he explains. So even though it's essential that the two schools have the same athletic equipment and driver education simulators, for instance, it's not necessary to have the same amount of equipment just for the sake of equity.
Don't replace items that aren't worn or outdated just for the sake of keeping things equal "You need to be good stewards of the district finances," Worrell says. Look at what needs to be replaced and how much it needs replacing before taking action, he advises. For instance, build new bleachers because they are worn out and need to be replaced--not because another school got new bleachers as part of a renovation or new construction effort.
Develop a five-year refresh plan for technology and schedule major building maintenance In larger districts especially, scheduling upgrades and major maintenance can help level the playing field and keep facilities in good condition and running order. Greenville County (S.C.) Schools is in the midst of a major new construction and renovation effort that will see improvements or replacement of most of its 94 schools by 2006. The district has a five-year technology refresh program, so schools will have new technology equipment every five years, on a schedule, says Superintendent Phinneze Fisher. "We also have scheduled maintenance on our new and old schools so that they all don't need to be replaced in 35 years."
Do some master planning for the future GreenAssociates is often asked to look at demographic growth and how that affects building use in districts. "If redistricting and sending kids to other buildings isn't an option, they often ask us to take a look at which buildings have which amenities, what size spaces [exist, the] number of classrooms and how can they have parity across the district, even if the schools aren't the same size," says Pugh.
Clients get a spreadsheet that compares projects and examines all kinds of spaces within the district's schools. It also shows "how adaptable [each] building is for renovation," she says. "I begin by looking at the number and sizes of rooms and then I look at infrastructure and at what we'd have to do to adapt that building."
When building multiple schools, consider using a design prototype and guidelines Marvin Coker, program manager with McMillan Smith & Partners in South Carolina, has designed many of the new schools for Greenville County. "The district developed a base point for what they needed for each level of school. ... We've done a prototype elementary school for the district, and it will be built at least six times. And our prototype middle and high schools will each be built at least four times," he explains. "The schools have their own identity and don't look like cookie cutters, but they are equal in terms of core facilities and support facilities."
Greenville County also developed architectural design guidelines for its schools up front. The many architects working on the building program take the specs and adapt them to each school. What goes into each school is standardized, although architects have some freedom in how they fit the standardized components into their designs.
Understand the connection between quality of school facilities and school pride Vinton County Local School District, which covers 414 square miles in rural southeastern Ohio, had a new high school open in fall of 2000. It replaced an 87-year-old building with no cafeteria and a small, outdated gymnasium. The new high school--which has a full-sized gym with seating for nearly 1,400 spectators, as well as a flexible multi-use space that serves as both cafeteria and auditorium--is used extensively by community members. That kind of benefit certainly helps with acceptance of a new building.
"The new school has become the focal point of our community," Simmons points out. "It's our social center. It's a point of pride for the entire community and county."
Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a Monroe, Conn.-based freelance writer who frequently covers construction issues.
Keeping Up With the Joneses
An enormous, state-of-the-art school being built in a neighboring town is getting a lot of local media play. Your district, however, is not planning such a splendid new school.
Competition for students within a region can create a whole other kind of equity issue. "If a district has a good program and wants to increase its enrollment, it will increase the quality of its facilities," says Michael Hall, chief marketing officer for Fanning/Howey Associates.
When the firm began a building program with one Midwestern school system, architects visited a neighboring district to see its facilities. "When we reported back to our client district, we told them their program was better than their neighboring district," Hall says. "They didn't care what we did as long as it was better than the facilities at the other district. The real driving force in their building program was to be better than the adjacent district."
In the experience of Carol Pugh, a partner with GreenAssociates, districts in the firm's area of Illinois aren't concerned about keeping up with the Joneses. "The neighboring district honestly doesn't feel compelled to build. Nobody has that kind of luxury these days with the economic climate the way it is," Pugh says. "Certainly, districts want to know what everyone else is doing, and there's an awful lot of exchange in terms of visiting other facilities. But ... state funding for schools is minimal and no one has any money to go above and beyond what they absolutely need."
Pugh says districts will, however, use examples of what other districts have as talking points for referendums. For instance, a district might point to a neighboring district's field house to push its own field house construction plan forward.
Brad Paulsen, director of educational services for the firm Wight & Company, says districts don't look at equity between neighboring schools on a space-by-space basis, but by overall building issues. "It's more amenity-driven, like if one community got a pool in its high school, maybe we should have one," Paulsen explains. "There are definitely comparisons, but it's difficult to compare programs with other districts because there are different sets of circumstances."
Ohio has worked to level the playing field in the area of school facilities. In fact, equity is guaranteed through strict, state-mandated guidelines.
In 1996, then Governor of Ohio George Vonovich made a significant commitment to increase the amount of school facilities funding that flows to districts. Three years later, current Governor Bob Taft introduced Rebuild Ohio, an ambitious school facilities proposal. It's goal: Renovate or rebuild every one of the 3,500 school buildings in the state over a 12-year period. The price tag is a cool $25 billion, which includes both state money and local money put up by districts according to a formula that funds poorer districts at a high level than more affluent districts.
Franklin J. Brown, planning director for the Ohio School Facilities Commission, which administers the funding, says, "We think more of equity among all of the buildings in the state and not so much when it relates to one building in a district." Luckily for administrators, the state's involvement in equity means they are automatically thinking about it for their own schools.
Make Mine Magnet
Elementary school facilities in Novi (Mich.) Community School District aren't exactly equal, but the community is comfortable with the disparate nature of its schools. The renovation of Deerfield Elementary School several years ago transformed it into a magnet school for the whole district. Other schools also got some renovations and had their educational programs tweaked.
The school system has long had an eye toward inter-district facilities equity. The design and concept for a new elementary school, completed in 2000, came out of discussions of a year-long parent, teacher and administrator committee. For Deerfield Elementary, the committee recommended a drastically different educational arrangement and curricular delivery system in the new building that involves two separate schools within the school. Each of the smaller schools serves all five K-4 grade levels and has two neighborhoods, or houses. Classrooms are all multi-age rooms where students from all five grade levels receive instruction. "We essentially have four one-room schoolhouses, and we have multi-age continuous progress in each of the houses," says Superintendent Emmett Lippe.
"This arrangement generated a lot of discussion with the other four elementary schools in the district about equity in areas like the gymnasiums, media center and computer lab," says the project's architect, Michael Hall of Fanning/Howey Associates. "There's not a lot you can do with the existing elementary schools to reconfigure the buildings into small houses, without spending a heck of a lot of money."
The answer was to label Deerfield a magnet school. Parents now have a choice between sending their children to neighborhood schools or busing them to Deerfield. This accommodates parents who want their children to have a more traditional education as well as those who want the multi-age classroom concept.
The district's traditional schools are now more well equipped, too. For instance, in 2002, Novi Woods Elementary underwent a complete renovation with a new gym and media center, as well as new classrooms. In 2003, two other district elementary schools, Village Oaks and Orchard Hills, each got a new media center; Orchard Hills added a multi-use area to its building at the same time.
The other district elementary schools have also adopted some of the educational practices of the magnet school. For example, the staff and some parents wanted to have two-member teaching teams with the capability of going to four-member teams. "Using Deerfield as a model, they ... [selected] what they thought were some of the best practices of the new school," Lippe explains.
And in Novi, where administrators value equity, schools have the freedom to do just that.
Share, Share Alike
Sometimes it's not possible or even logical to assure equity between schools in a district. But that doesn't have to mean facing throngs of irate or disappointed parents, students and staff.
As Valley View School District 365U in suburban Chicago has shown, two high schools can simply share facilities. The district has two distinct communities: Bolingbrook, which has grown quickly into a professional community; and Romeoville, which is more residential and rural. With an overflowing student population, Bolingbrook was busing students to Romeoville at one point. The district chose to make the old high school into a middle school and construct a large, state-of-the-art high school for Bolingbrook. At the same time, Romeoville's high school would get some additions and renovations.
"If we made a decision to put something in at the new school because we thought it was more student-friendly and makes for a better school environment, we tried to do the same thing in Romeoville," says Gregg Worrell, Valley View's assistant superintendent for administrative services. "But is everything equal? No."
For example, the district opted not to spend millions of dollars to add a traditional wood shop or an auto shop at the new high school. Instead, the school got more of an applied technology lab where auto repair skills are learned on the computer, versus the hands-on approach afforded at Romeoville. Students can choose either program.
"The district understood that it has two programs, a traditional one and a new and forward-looking program," notes Brad Paulsen, director of educational services for Wight & Company, a Darien, Ill.-based firm that designed and built the schools. "And it decided that it could offer both programs to all students across the district."
"It actually expands the opportunities for all students," Paulsen explains. "It's a very different idea of equity."