Lynn King is a twenty year resident of DeKalb County and was a teacher in the school system for 18 years. Her husband is a product of Chamblee High School and she still has a child in DCSD system.
By: Lynn King
Everyone who has read my post on this site knows that I am not a fan of adding on to already cramped schools that do not have the acreage needed to support a bigger school, especially when there is evidence to suggest we are going to need another high school in Region 1 in 5 years. Given that these additions appear to be moving forward, however, I hope sharing these thoughts will help educate all of us regarding what should be considered as the plans are developed as well as what other DeKalb schools did when they faced a huge population boom back in the mid to late 1990’s.
The Construction Advisory Committee (CAC) guidelines came out from Josh Williams on Monday, February 6. Having served on a construction committee, I believe it is unrealistic to have a 5 member committee and am concerned about the makeup of the committee. My first concern is that two of the members will be school council members. School councils change every school year with half the members rolling off and new members rolling on. The second reason is few parents are willing to work on a 2 to 5-year committee knowing that their own student will be moving on to the next level before the project is completed. Having a number of members increases the likelihood that there will be some continuity over the years long process. It is critical that there be members that remain for the duration in order to serve as “institutional knowledge” of the construction process to ensure that the needs of the students and staff initially identified in the construction planning are being fulfilled. The third concern is that members should include parents, staff whose spaces will be affected (cafeteria, special ed, media center, PE, fine arts, IT, etc), administrators, those with a construction background, a community liaison, a PTA/PTO liaison, and feeder school reps.
I offer the following thoughts in hopes that others can take my educational experience and use it as a learning tool to help all of the students in the DeKalb County School District (DSCD). I spent this past weekend at both Stephenson Middle and Stephenson High School. Both schools opened in 1996 to new students. The hallways are very wide and spacious. Granted I did not have a tape measure but I counted 17 tiles across the ceiling. If a tile is 2 feet by 2 feet, the hallways would be close to 34 feet wide. They are not like the halls at Chamblee Middle, Peachtree Middle or even Chamblee High that which were all built after 1996. Even if DCSD builds hallways this width for all the new high school additions, the current hallways will still be more narrow and unable to easily accommodate the increased number of students.
Stephenson High School (SHS) had a major addition under SPLOST I or II(?). SHS received an auditorium and additional classrooms to meet their growth explosion that happened in South DeKalb in the mid to late 1990’s.
The SHS construction committee asked for an additional cafeteria and gym and requested that their fine arts spaces be expanded. They also asked the county for a new stadium on a piece of property the county owned adjacent to SHS. (DCSD ended up selling the property to a developer that added 220 houses next door.) Of their requests, SHS only got the additional cafeteria. The “additional cafeteria” is just a serving line; no food is prepared there. The food is still prepared in the main building and carted over to the “Stephenson Academy”. (I will explain in the next paragraph)
SHS sits on 45 acres. Their Construction Committee had a novel idea: a concept that they believed would work for their community. They came up with the “Stephenson Academy”: a separate wing just for 9th graders which is still in use today. When the renovations were built, the school’s enrollment was about 2600. Today the enrollment is 1580.
I mention the cafeteria and the 9th grade to point out that each school has their own ideas about what they need and how to solve those needs. We can learn from those that have already had renovations/new schools if we take the time to have site visits and engage in conversation about what they like and what they would change.
For example, I am worried about our band directors and students that are in trailers, rooms that are too small, and/or rooms that are not acoustically correct. Will this be addressed as we add additional students to these schools? My hearing has been damaged from years in a room too small for a band classroom with 70+ kids in the classroom. I had a student do a science report on the decibel readings during class. The students and I were sitting next to the equivalent of a jet engine for most of the class. Even though the findings were reported, nothing was done. Why are we doing this to our teachers and students? SHS brought this to my attention when I was touring and asking questions this weekend. Their construction committee had asked to have their Fine Art spaces expanded but DCSD told them no. Their request was to move a wall 15 feet. This past weekend, the 100 student Honor Band had no room to move. The students were pressed up to each wall. If there had been a fire or any other emergency situation, the students could not have been safely taken care of. You can imagine how loud this would be. Not expanding common spaces like music rooms in these high school additions will impose the same safety concerns SHS has on our soon-to be “enlarged” high schools.
While at these schools, I also asked what the PE department felt about locker rooms and gym/workout room space. The answers I got were very scary as a parent and a teacher. They reported fights while kids were changing out. The staff could not break up the fight in a timely fashion because the space was too congested to get through. In addition, instructional time had to be cut by 5 – 10 minutes per class to accommodate the extra time needed to get everyone in and out of the locker rooms. 5 minutes may not sound like a lot of time but it adds up and in 10 classes, you have lost one entire instructional period. Today, with the testing mandates, and yes PE does have Standard Learning Objectives (SLO’s), missing classroom instructional time will be detrimental to the student (and to the teachers whose performance includes student outcomes on testing). In a 180 day school year, having to adjust class time due to limited locker and gym space means students would lose up to 18 days of PE without the addition of extra gym and locker space in these new additions. What message are we sending to our PE teachers and the students that take that class? How would you feel if this was your child’s AP English, Math, or Science class? You and I wouldn’t stand for it. Why should PE be any different?
When I was on the construction committee at Henderson Middle School (HMS), we asked the district if we could visit other middle schools that had had renovations or been built new. We esp. wanted to see Lithonia because, like HMS, it had originally been a high school and was “converted”. We toured Lithonia, Peachtree Middle and Stone Mountain Middle. We saw how they placed classrooms for the “team” concept adopted by DCSD. We were able to observe locker rooms, weight rooms, media centers, fine arts spaces, etc to help with visioning for HMS. I strongly encourage each CAC to visit schools that have been renovated or added additions and to explore schools in districts outside DCSD too.
I sat in monthly meetings for over six months with other teachers, parents, and administrators discussing the individual and collective needs related to classrooms and common spaces to help the students at HMS be more successful. As the band director, I had already researched several band rooms that were new in the county, so I had an idea about what would work for the program at HMS. PCMS had a great design that worked wonderfully but we needed extra space to help with a program that was about 90 students bigger.
When the architect presented a set of plans, the band room had not been addressed. I asked when the band director was going to be able to give input on the new room and was told that they had already spoken to the band director and “he” was fine with the plan. (Not sure who they talked to – maybe a county music person – but I’m a “she”). The reason I mention this is that sometimes there are communication glitches. It is critical that staff, whose spaces will be impacted, be included in the conversations. I shared that I needed 100 – 200 extra square feet to accommodate the county’s largest middle school band program (at the time of over 330 students.) DCSD stated that our band space met state requirements. They resisted the fact that our program was unique and thus required individualized solutions. Having done my homework, I knew that SWD didn’t like the DCSD plans for their band room and had used their own architect. Eventually, with the support and persistence of the HMS construction team, our band room plans were modified to resemble PCMS with additional space to accommodate a larger program.
It is unfortunate that it required me to do a lot of leg work to get an acceptable band space but the lesson going forward for others on the CAC is clear. Take time to educate yourself and your committee: tour schools and talk to those using the spaces about what works and what doesn’t, talk to those that will be using the space and get their input, familiarize yourself with state requirements and precedents, thoroughly reviewed the plans, make sure to see the final set before it is put out to bid, etc.