Transforming Your School District Through Renovation And Renewal
Renovation of your school district can have much more of an impact than most people realize. Not only can it result in tremendous improvements for your learning environments, it can also have far reaching effects for your educational program and staff moral, and foster leadership development.
Often, renovation is viewed as a very mundane process. Most of the work is done behind the walls or underground, resulting in minimal improvements experienced on a day to day basis by students, teachers, and members of the community. By working strategically, however, you can foster improvements in student achievement, re-structure your educational program, and develop support from your students, teachers, and your community.
It all starts with the planning process. If you begin the renovation process with limited thinking, you will have limited results. If you are not afraid to ask the big questions, your results will exceed your highest expectations.
Renovating an existing school needs to be approached in the same manner as you would have in designing a new school. You should think about and ask your teachers, administrators, and members of the community how your educational program and teaching methods can improve. It’s necessary to have a community discussion that actively gauges whether or not your schools are currently meeting the needs of students, anticipating how your community is changing, and estimating how your schools will need to respond to the desires of the community and the needs of its students over the next 20 – 30 years. Your renovation plans need to respond to how education is shifting and be flexible enough to accommodate changes in the coming years.
Sometimes the process is just as important as the outcome. Benefits to the district are multiplied logarithmically when your staff, students, and community are engaged in the process. The only way to be assured of meaningful engagement is by giving people opportunities for meaningful input. Your planning committee members must have the opportunity to help shape and ultimately form your projects. One of the most successful programs that I have seen in fostering buy-in is in Aurora, Illinois. The superintendent of West Aurora School District 129, Dr. Sherry Eagle, charged each of her principals with forming a site planning committee composed of teachers, students, and members of the community. Not only was this planning committee helpful in assisting the district in prioritizing infrastructure improvements, they also were engaged in the process of prioritizing the most important improvements at their school which would support their educational program and the significant role that their school plays in their neighborhood and community. Dr. Eagle’s most innovative idea was to set aside a certain amount of discretionary money for each school, giving each planning committee complete control over allocation. This amount of money was fondly referred to as “the purse.” It was amazing to see that each planning committee member guarded this money as their own, doing incredible amounts of research and study before deciding how the money would best be spent. It turned out that they were just as diligent in their recommendations to the Board of Education about infrastructure improvements that would also affect their school.
To explore big picture issues the district also formed a district-wide renovation and renewal committee. This committee consisted of representatives from each of the school site committees and was asked to look at the immediate and long-range educational needs in making district-wide recommendations about educational improvements. These submissions were turned into design guidelines, making suggestions for new improvements and renovations which should be implemented at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. These guidelines made suggestions for improvements to the learning environment, and the addition of newly renovated spaces that were necessary in order to accommodate a new project-based curriculum in the district. It also took into account a series of new learning partnerships that were formed across the district, including new relationships with Aurora University and the YMCA.
In addition to the facility improvements that you would expect, staff morale and staff development were enhanced dramatically. During the district’s initial meetings, which they called their “Futures Conference”, futurists, educational leaders, and architects, presented ideas about their view of the future and what schools will look like. Members of the Aurora community then hypothesized about how they saw their community changing and how that would affect the needs of students and ultimately, the design of their learning environments in the future. These discussions led to an incredible educational dialogue throughout the district and the community. These considerations fostered change and improvement in every school and helped develop a new set of educational leaders throughout the district. Many of these principals and design committee members are now assistant superintendents and holders of leadership positions throughout the district. Another unanticipated benefit from this process was a fostering of community support, which ultimately led to the passage of a second bond referendum, allowing the district to complete the necessary improvements at every school. It was easy for people to see the tremendous stewardship that the district exhibited in spending the community’s money. They could also see how these benefits were multiplied dramatically through a series of improvements and more importantly, improved educational benefits and opportunities for every student in the district.