A Team Approach to Building a New School by DON L. BELL

Before you take your first step toward significantly renovating an aging facility or building a new school to meet changing student populations, be prepared with plenty of thoughtful answers.

Taxpayers will demand to know about a building’s intended use. As a district administrator, you need a solid answer to this question before you select an architect. You can avoid unnecessary delays, change orders and increased expenditures if you’ve assessed your building needs properly and fully. I liken the process to visiting the grocery store. Without a prepared list in hand, you walk out wondering how you just spent a significant sum on items you didn’t need or failed to purchase something that you had intended.

Several essentials must be factored into the building equation, including proper financial planning, educational curricular programming, actual building usage and anticipated growth needs. Planning for the present while envisioning the future can be challenging at best and troublesome at worst.

So how can you prepare for building renovation, new construction or site selection work? Our school district did it by creating a building leadership team.

A Deliberate Pace
We put together our team in 2000 to review the most recent building needs, growth trends and previous feasibility studies and, most importantly, our district’s educational vision. We found significant needs for renovations and additions. The team set an aggressive construction program in four of our seven buildings to be completed between 2000 and 2003.

Patience by the building leadership team and the school board is needed to allow all personnel to provide input. When you wait, you are not wasting time but investing in it. Patience in developing a team should encompass the entire building program in a practical manner. The leadership team should deliberately plan the work and the district architect should work the team plan. In our district, the team consisted of three members of the school board, the superintendent, the appropriate building principals and the project architect.

At the outset, the leadership team should bring other stakeholders together to gain valuable human data relating to planned instructional and assessment practices, student growth plans, professional induction and education programs, organizational goals, student opportunities, and internal and external educational needs assessments. This human data should be given to the architect before design work begins.

Consider what D.J. DePree, owner of the Star Furniture Co. in Zeeland, Mich., answered when an architect asked him, “Do you think design is the most interesting thing about a house?” DePree answered, “Yes I guess I do.” “Then you’re wrong,” the designer responded. “The most interesting thing about a house is the people who live in it … and I am designing for those people.”

The message here is simple: Do not design a building based solely on the pieces of furniture, equipment, space and policies that affect the individuals who work there. In addressing the individual and institutional needs of the occupants, a building can create an inviting atmosphere that puts the workers in the proper mindset. Multiple rooflines, arched building fronts, circular stairs and grand entrances are often substituted for light and comfort in classrooms, leading to unhappiness, discontent and a lack of productivity among occupants.

A leadership team comprised of educators and building advisers should begin the building process through a series of questions asked to the people who will work in the building. You can center on maximizing the school’s productivity through proper questioning of current personnel in the organization while addressing the school district’s vision.

The team repeatedly experienced challenges by those who wanted to protect the status quo. Change always threatens some people. In responding to each question, the building leadership team must meet each challenge with well thought-out and cogently articulated responses.

Genuine Data
The core values of the leadership team will be to place kids first. This is not a teachable trait but more of an educational attitude to embrace when designing a building. Second, they should strive to work toward progressiveness, not perfection. Progression shows a desire to become better while perfection shows a lack of openness to new ideas. Finally, the team should focus on this question: How does what we do affect children? The team always must consider the children involved in their undertaking by asking: How will our schedules and what we ask of the people involved affect the lives of the children? How can we be a positive influence on children at large?

The team should assess the extent of all resources available. The resource information should be gathered through questions, not based on guesswork. The data must come from the people who know. General Robert E. Lee asked on the day of his surrender: “What opportunities do we have before us?” He asked this to show others the bigger picture and to be careful not to miss strategic possibilities. The leadership team should do the same.

The key to completing a successful building program is understanding what you have to begin with and knowing what others desire to achieve.

Finally, the team must guard against the development of a building program that is not focused. If you don’t know what you want, you will be sure to build it and it will cost the taxpayers greatly. And it may cost district leaders their jobs.

Don Bell is superintendent of Northern Lebanon School District, P.O. Box 100, Fredericksburg, PA 17026. E-mail: