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School building rebounds

Rising from the Great Recession, districts renovate and build for future challenges
  • Architects who built a new El Dorado High School in Arkansas in 2011 realized using wood, instead of steel, in the construction of the hallways could save the district millions of dollars.
  • Wood also was used in El Dorado High School's 450-seat theater.
  • Students and community members recently celebrate the groundbreaking of a new elementary school in the Northwest Community School District in Jackson, Mich., where no construction bonds had been passed for four decades.
  • Carmichaels Junior/Senior High School in Pennsylvania will have energy-efficient lighting and heating after this year’s renovations and expansion.
  • The Delmar Fieldhouse in Houston ISD was recently demolished to make way for new construction under a $1.89 billion school construction bond.
  • A crew at Worthing High School in Houston ISD begins work on a new school under a construction bond that covers 40 projects districtwide.

Safety, flexibility and energy efficiency are the forces driving new school construction as administrations create buildings to rival college facilities to prepare students for the technology-driven world they will find in college and the workforce.

More districts are creating flexible classrooms and labs that give schools options to revamp learning spaces as curriculum and enrollment change, architects say. Administrators also are designing energy-efficient schools to lower utility, maintenance and other operating costs, says Blake Dunn of CADM Architecture, Inc., an Arkansas-based firm that specializes in educational projects.

“We’ve noticed a lot of changes with technology and security,” Dunn says. Schools are installing doors that lock automatically at certain times and security systems that can be controlled remotely.

Districts also are more eager to use building material beyond traditional masonry and steel, Dunn adds. New laws in Arkansas, Georgia and Illinois allow wood, which, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is a more sustainable material and requires less carbon to produce than does steel.

Tight post-recession budgets mean districts—when hoping to win funding from voter-approved bond measures—must gain community support by sharing information at public meetings, says Kevin Hayes, president of the Hayes Design Group Architects, which works on schools in the Pennsylvania area. “One of the trends we’ve seen is that more districts are trying to maintain facilities rather than build completely new ones in order to stretch their dollar,” Hayes says.

Here are four districts that passed bond measures to enhance their facilities in hopes of bettering the educational experience for students and preparing them for the college and career environments of the future.

New buildings 44 years in the making

The Northwest Community School District in Jackson, Mich., went 44 years without any renovations. This wasn’t for lack of trying—the district watched 14 bond proposals fail between 1969 and 2012. One problem was a lack of consistent leadership: in the past seven years, the district has seen five superintendents come and go as building equipment corroded and maintenance costs soared.

Northwest Community School District

  • Students: 2,800
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 47%
  • Construction plan: Build new elementary school, renovate high school
  • Total cost: $40 million
  • Construction time: About 1 year

The district’s elementary school, poorly built with 32 furnaces and 26 water heaters, was costing more to maintain each year, says Cari Bushinski, director of instruction. The district would have to spend 80 percent of the cost of a new building to bring the school up to code. The problem intensified in 2007, when the rural district of 2,800 students began losing about 100 pupils per year.

“Every time a bond would fail, we would lose more students,” Bushinski says. “The community didn’t believe in the schools and morale was low.” Parents enrolled some 300 students in neighboring districts through the state’s school choice law, Bushinski says.

Superintendent Geoff Bontrager was hired in 2012, and led a bond campaign that involved the community more deeply than ever before. Administrators visited township offices, restaurants and trailer park community centers to discuss with community members the dilapidated state of the school facilities and to ask for input. The district provided facts about the buildings, bond history, comparisons to neighboring districts and the tax increase.

“It was extremely important to get a true pulse of the community and learn what they support,” Bontrager says. “Even if your boilers leak and the roofs are falling in, if the community doesn’t believe in what you’re doing and where the district is headed, I don’t believe a bond will pass.”

And showing the community what the money would specifically go toward also helped gain support, Bushinski says.

In May 2012, voters approved bond proposals for $30 million and $10 million to fund high school renovations, a new elementary school and other construction projects. The high school renovations will include additional space for the district’s fine arts programs and athletics programs, Bushinski says.

The high school renovations, which will cost $18 million, will provide students with a 1,000-seat “cafetorium” and a new auxiliary gym. Security, heating, roofing and electrical systems will be updated throughout the district. As a result of this activity, enrollment increased. The district gained 80 students in the 2013-14 year—the first time enrollment had gone up in years, Bushinski says.

For about $15 million, the new elementary school will be built on the same property as the current one, which will be demolished. Construction on both schools began this past spring, and will be complete by summer 2015. Students will still be able to attend the high school while the addition is built.

Saving money with nontraditional materials

El Dorado Public Schools in south central Arkansas was one of the first districts in the state to make extensive use of wood following a 2008 change in state policy that had previously prohibited the building material.

El Dorado Public Schools

  • Students: 4,650
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 63%
  • Construction plan: New high school
  • Total cost: $43.2 million
  • Construction time: 2 years

A state assessment in 2005 found it would cost more to upgrade El Dorado High School—the largest in the area with some 1,300 students—than to build a new school. After the district passed a tax increase to build the new school in 2007, Superintendent Bob Watson created a 20-person design committee that included a representative from each department in the school. He also included community members, maintenance staff and administrators.

Architect Blake Dunn of CADM Architecture, Inc., an Arkansas-based firm that specializes in education projects, met individually with each department to discuss a design wish list. It took almost a year to gather the information and to develop a plan to meet department needs and provide enough security.

The budget for the new school was about $47 million, but the initial estimates for the steel and masonry needed were too high. The architects determined that using wood in both exposed areas and some concealed spaces in the school would save on material costs. “Through changing the concealed structural elements—such as wall portioning—to wood, we reduced costs by $2.7 million,” Dunn says. The final cost to complete the school was $43.2 million.

Walking in the front door of the new building, one can see many skylights and 24-foot wide hallways. “We wanted a big commons area, much like the student centers at a college,” Watson says. The natural light gives exposed wood beams and brick pillars a warm aesthetic feel.

The school also houses a 450-seat theater and a 2,200-seat basketball arena with more exposed beams. The arena’s roof is made completely of wood, which saved $60,000 to $80,000.

It took about two and a half years to build the school, which first opened for students in August 2011.

Dunn says administrators should examine nontraditional design options such as open floor plans. He also recommends using spaces for more than one function. For example, at El Dorado, the band and orchestra share a rehearsal room, ensuring it gets more use during the day.

First renovation since 1929

Carmichaels Area Junior/Senior High School hasn’t been updated since it was built in 1929, due to lack of funding, says Carmichaels Area School District Superintendent Craig Baily. The school, located in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, houses 485 students in grades seven through 12, 40 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Carmichaels Area School District

  • Students: 1,150
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 463%
  • Construction plan: Complete renovation of the junior-senior high school; partial renovation of an elementary school
  • Total cost: $14 million
  • Construction time: 2.5 years

The district won $10 million bonds in 2012 and 2013 to expand the building and to partially renovate an elementary school. “The need was definitely facilities-based—we had aging buildings costing more and more each year to maintain,” says lead architect Kevin Hayes, the president of Hayes Design Group Architects. The traditional classroom design of the school also didn’t fit with the need for more flexible spaces where students and teachers could use technology to collaborate, he adds.

The district budgeted $15.5 million for the junior/senior high school addition, but the project came in under budget at $14 million. The extra $1.5 million will fund new lockers and gymnasium lighting.

To make the school more energy efficient, Hayes combined “daylight harvesting” with LED lighting from Pitt Electric. A daylight harvesting system monitors the natural light in a room and automatically adjusts the LED lighting to maintain the same illumination throughout the day, Hayes says. The district also is installing variable-air-volume heating and air conditioning systems, which cut down on energy use by bringing in cool or hot air from outdoors.

Work began in May, and the kitchen and cafeteria will be renovated over the summer. The kitchen will get more energy-efficient appliances, and the cafeteria will shift from the traditional lunch lines to a food court-style setting with multiple food options.

New classrooms will be grouped by subject, with the hope of offering more chances for teacher collaboration and sharing of best practices. In the past, room size dictated class placement. Each classroom will be BYOD-ready with Wi-Fi and online security systems in place.

Students will be moved into classrooms in the senior high school section or into mobile classrooms while the construction is completed over the next year. The junior-senior high school will be complete by fall 2015. The elementary school renovations, which will include new roofing and carpeting, will be completed in summer 2016.

Juggling 40 construction projects

In 2012, Houston ISD passed a $1.89 billion school construction bond to cover 40 projects—the largest in state history, says Robert Sands, district officer of construction and facility services. More than half of the projects involve renovating high schools from traditional 1920s-style buildings to modern learning environments—with a focus on security and environmental sustainability.

Houston ISD

  • Students: 211,552
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 80%
  • Construction plan: 40 total projects, including 20 high school renovations
  • Total cost: $1.89 billion
  • Construction time: 6 years

Other schools in the district of over 211,000 students will be renovated and expanded, and one new elementary school will be built to serve an overcrowded part of the city. The first 17 projects will be underway by late December. All projects are planned to be completed by 2020, Sands says.

The district will spend between $5 million and $6 million on security, including cameras, secured doorways, fencing, locking systems and intrusion alarms. “As time goes on and you have incidents across the country, you realize other areas you need to secure that you hadn’t thought about before,” Sands says.

A consultant helped the district determine it needed a double entrance, so when visitors walk through the front doors they are enclosed in a glass area before they can enter the office. The district is also exploring systems that remotely lock doors leading to each floor of a building. All schools are fenced in, and some have locked gates. Security equipment will be electronically controlled from off-site.

All buildings will be LEED certified—the recognized standard for measuring building sustainability—and most will eventually include wind turbines and water recycling systems that reuse rainwater for school sprinklers.

The renovated schools will feature more windows and glass walls to increase natural light, Sands says. Hallway areas will have couches and outlets for mobile devices. Libraries will be smaller, as many books in the district are now electronic. The cafeteria will also be smaller, and food kiosks will be added to each floor of each building so students can eat on the go, Sands says.

With the renovations, the district has changed the name of its classrooms to “collaborative spaces,” which are open areas with portable furniture and equipment. Teachers will have rolling storage cabinets so they can move their laptops and teaching materials from space to space, depending on the type of room needed for the lesson.

“It will be more like a college, with the teacher standing in the middle of the room, not at a podium,” Sands says. “It’s driven by the way students learn now—they are multi-taskers and are not geared for rigid lecturing.”

Alison DeNisco is news editor.