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Construction Dispatch

The latest trends in school facilities and construction


Which Comes First: The Principal or The School?

The answer to school construction's "chicken or the egg" conundrum these days is beginning to lean toward chicken. That's because superintendents like James Geisler at Walled Lake (Mich.) Consolidated Schools have discovered the benefits to designing a new school with leadership and staff already in place.

Geisler stumbled onto this revelation with the first elementary school built under his watch last decade. "I anticipated parents would clamor to get their kid in and pressure us to redistrict in their favor. It was just the opposite," he says. "People perceived the new school would limp through its first few years. ... We had to [show that the building would open] full steam ahead."

Geisler has since OK'ed six additional facilities, giving elementary and middle school leaders six months to concentrate on building their new positions; high school principals take a year. "My observation is that they never lack for things to do. This isn't like winning the lottery and cashing a paycheck while looking to fill time," he notes.

Mike Washburn, superintendent of Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Mich., located a few hours from Walled Lake, is more generous still. He names a new school's principal at least a year prior to opening; high school crews get a year and a half. For his investment, he has reaped a treasure trove of good ideas in action--an elementary building with portable walls that could convert it to a middle school structure down the road, for one. To better imitate the business world, Forest Hills Eastern High School features rectangular classroom spaces to accommodate a teacher in the center of the room, with wireless data accessible through the floor.

Perhaps even more importantly, he bought buy-in. "When the staff forms a unit 18 months before they see a kid in a classroom, it's their school. They sell that to the parents, to the kids," says Washburn.

Janelle McGuire, principal of Walled Lake Northern High School, dubs this route "the only way to go if you want a smooth opening to a new facility." She and Joan Heinz, principal of the district's Walnut Creek Middle School, spent their advance time overseeing everything from color selection and furniture delivery to PTA elections, fire drill maps, union contracts and building key assignments.

Even architects put in a plug for putting the chicken before the egg. "The principal needs to devise a strategy to get the rest of the staff up to speed," says Michael Van Schelven, senior project designer at URS in Grand Rapids. "If someone hands you a new laptop computer, you're not completely familiar with all it can do right away. You need time to understand how to use this new tool. School buildings are the same way."

However, district administrators do need to trust these principals. "You can't just appoint somebody and then constantly meddle," Heinz advises. "It's a big leap of faith, but you can't do this unless you take it."

It's also a big chunk of change. In Washburn's experience, urban districts with limited resources rarely have the flexibility to take a principal off line but not off the payroll. "My sense is that the places able to move in this direction are more in the suburbs, and in locations where the population is booming and building," he says.

Historic L.A. Hotel's Got Class


Los Angeles Unified School District first eyed the abandoned Ambassador Hotel as a fine place to locate a school back in 1989. Today the project temporarily known as Heritage K-12 Option bears a tentative start date of 2006.

"Few sites we buy come unencumbered," admits Edwin Van Ginkel, senior development manager for new construction at LAUSD. "But this is the first property with significant cultural issues to navigate. Emotions play high." Among other things, it was the place where Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In Round I, the school district tried to use its power of eminent domain to condemn the historic property. Property owners battled, while spending the district's $48 million good-faith deposit to pay down debt. After two years, LAUSD stepped out of the deal--and then the tables turned. The declining real estate market prompted the owners to beg for condemnation.

That torched an eight-year battle in which the district tried to get its money back and stave off the Los Angeles Conservancy preservation group, which sued LAUSD to stop any future razing.

The story ends happily, sort of: By 2001, the conservancy preferred for the school district to hold the title over demolishment-minded bidders like Donald Trump and a local housing developer. "The conservancy felt we'd listen more thoughtfully to their appeals," Van Ginkel reports.

Indeed, the district agreed to a compromise. The hotel's famous Coconut Grove nightclub, once home to the Oscars, will become the school auditorium. The coffee shop built by locally noted architect Paul Revere Williams will be a teacher's lounge. And the shopping promenade will live on--as storefront facades within the cafeteria. Van Ginkel says the district is consulting a panel of presidential and U.S. history experts to deal respectfully with the assassination location. Currently, it's unprogrammed space.

In all, negotiations have added $15 million to the bill--but that's better than socking $100,000 million extra into keeping the bedrooms, too, in Van Ginkel's book. As of late November 2004, the conservancy disagreed, slapping yet another lawsuit into the fray over the fate of that main building.

"This is a classic example of two very important public policy issues conflicting," Van Ginkel points out. More than 4,000 students live within nine blocks of the hotel; duplicating the 23 acres would mean plowing over hundreds of apartment buildings and businesses. "So yes, the cost is great in terms of cultural impact," he says. "But the cost of choosing another school site in this area would be even greater."

Medical Rotation: Education Conversions


It took Karl Springer, superintendent of Mustang (Okla.) Public School District, and his director of operations, Jim Burkey, less than five minutes to pitch a deal that should become legend in school administration lore. The district bought a building valued at $2.9 million for $10.

A vacant nursing home facility had fallen under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's bailiwick. When the city council passed on the property, Springer sprung into action. "Mr. Burkey and I walked in and immediately said it looked like an elementary school," he recalls.

He wasn't just seeing things, confirms architect Charles Warner of DeJong & Associates in Dublin, Ohio. "In the last decade, medical clinics and schools have started to [be designed] more in clusters or pods," he says. Still, he shies from calling this a trend.

"Folks notice the similar layouts, the adjacencies, and think, 'hmm.' Then they get into the facts," he says. For instance, older medical buildings lack up-to-date HVAC systems. And 14-by 18-foot patient rooms don't readily morph into classrooms.

Officials in Mustang agree. But they made it work, knocking down walls and employing X-ray machines to help crews add water and drain lines without slicing many cables and exploding the foundation. Thanks to an "extremely creative" architect, Burkey says, remodeling costs were an unbelievably low $42 per square foot. In the end, the district designated the 27,000 square foot facility for pre-kindergarten and an alternative high school program.

"It would not have worked for a traditional school," Springer confesses. "But for the price, it was worth it."

The Los Angeles Unified School District, in fact, chose to raze a hospital sitting on property bought in a bankruptcy auction. Yet the district has built several high schools adjacent to hospital facilities, where space such as the grounds and library are shared. For Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School, the district bought five acres of ground instead of the usual 10. At costs approaching $4 million an acre in LAUSD territory, that's also a deal few administrators would ignore.

A School By Any Other Name...

Administrators have stopped buying Shakespeare's argument on roses by other names. A school's name is its identity, and here's how some have recently arrived at theirs:

--Emmett J. Conrad High School (opening in 2006) in Dallas Independent School District is named for the first African-American elected to the DISD school board.

--Hillsborough County (Fla.) Schools waves a patriotic theme: Heritage Elementary (2003), Liberty Middle School (2002) and Freedom High School (2002).

--Westwood Elementary (2003), part of Elk River (Minn.) Area School District 728, was named to coincide with its location near a wildlife refuge. A migration theme is in place, since children migrate to this school after completing grades K-2 elsewhere.

--When officials in Morganville, N.J., named their middle school in 2003, students and adults tossed in slew of votes for political figures like George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani. Thirty of the 220 ballots wanted to go with directional names, e.g. Marlboro North. In the end, the construction committee went with Marlboro Memorial Middle School to honor the area's 9-11 connections.

--Orion Junior High School (2003) in Harrisville, Utah, earned its name from the astronomy theme in various parts of the building.

If there's a common theme to be found, says Barbara Worth, spokeswoman for the Council of Educational Facility Planners, it's that the name reflects what the school means to the community.