Construction Advisory Committee Advice

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.
Lynn King

8 responses to “Construction Advisory Committee Advice

  1. Great advice Lynn. Thanks for taking the time to write this up — you have valuable input.
    The statement that “they had already spoken to the band director and “he” was fine with the plan” shows clearly two things; one, when confronted with a question for which they don’t have the answer, staff just makes one up. Two, you were treated dismissively due to your gender. This is supposed to be against the basic tenets of public schools. How regrettable.
    Also, you said, “When the renovations were built, the school’s enrollment was about 2600. Today the enrollment is 1580.” Again, this leads me to a couple of our old blog posts – one that questioned the ‘growth’ in north DeKalb. Is there truly ‘explosive’ growth or are students simply exercising very generous transfer allowances from schools in south DeKalb? No one can prove where these students are coming from that are requiring these massive additions.
    And here are some interesting aerial pictures of our high school properties for your enjoyment >>>

  2. Bill Armstrong

    I fully agree on the question of 5 with 2 being School Council (Governance Board at CCHS) – I think it should be 7, for many of the reasons you set forth, and I communicated that to Josh Williams & Dan Drake. At this point I think the CCHS community is in a good position, if for no other reason we are part of “Group 2” and they will be using “Group 1” to evaluate & perhaps tweak the process. And since these are additions instead of new schools, the needs for the CACs will be somewhat different. The timeframe for Group 2 is pushed more into March & beyond: “The implementation timeframe for Group 2 is still being finalized. More information will be provided in March 2017 after the Board has approved the implementation schedule for E-SPLOST V.” So we have time.
    But I also know that the CCHS Governance Board has already been in communication with Laura Stowell – Director Charter Schools Governance, so they will be prepared to send out the word for prospective CAC members, and receive training on the overall process, including the building of the CAC – which as I say – I’d like to see at 7. I also know there will be full access to all meetings to the public, so even those not on the CAC will be aware of what the CAC is discussing, the ideas being solicited and communicated to the CCHS board and DCSD Operations Dept. And that information can be communicated to the community at large, stakeholders in general, as well as the feeders: CMS & ESs.
    As for the needs being met, and exactly how, obviously that needs to monitored, and concerns like you raise addressed before things become “done deals.” I know that many might find my confidence in those in charge of the process: Josh Williams, Dan Drake, and since Charter – Laura Stowell, to be misplaced. I do not and I stand firmly in my belief the process is in good hands. That doesn’t mean I’m going along blindly, if I see issues, I will engage, in the proper way. I have a 3rd grader at HH, 7th grader @ CMS, & a 9th grader already at CCHS. The school is around the corner from our house. I care. I know others that disagree with me on some (maybe most – even all) of these issues – care too. I respect that.
    I hope that all opinions and input be properly made, and considered. Up to now there has been much adversarial engagement in our cluster, at best it has been “agree to disagree.” At this point I think we need to start finding middle ground as we move forward. Trying to blow up every discussed plan or alternative – I don’t think that will be helpful, I think it will be counterproductive. And hopefully we can use the CAC as a tool to provide input that will be considered, as well as disseminate information as openly it should be. Pay attention – I will.

  3. I know I keep harping on the idea that things haven’t changed much, but I will say this … we have certainly come a very long way from the days of Sarah, Zepora, Jay, Paul, John Evans, Vernon Jones, Crawford Lewis, Pat Pope, etc. The continuum is slow – but at least it’s forward. It is critical who voters elect to school board seats. Please look to support candidates who truly support students and positive growth for the county in the next election. These people hire the superintendent – and Dr. Green is approaching retirement age.

  4. I want to encourage all of the construction committees to speak with special education teachers and paras to find out what the needs of those schools are. Most schools do not have adequate small group instruction and testing spaces. Most schools don’t have a clinic for nurses. The elementary school prototype meets the minimum requirements for special education space regardless of the needs of the school.

  5. @ Bill Armstrong, The Lakeside Community has done an excellent job of using their feeders to request everyone with expertise to be part of the Construction Committee. What are they going to do know that the rules have changed?
    I believe we need to have more than 7. 10 no more than 15 seems to be a good number range. Yes, let 2 be a school council member, 3 school house teachers, 1 PTA member, 1 parent rep from the middle and elementary school(s) feeder, and 2 at-large members. The at-large members need to be from the community, they need a voice at the table also. They are going to impacted by all the change too.
    I can only speak from personal experiences that happened when I was on the construction committee at HMS. CAC members need to push for two meetings a month while during the design and construction phase. We at HMS found out the hard way when were originally told we would have “Outdoor Security Lighting” and “New Asphalt” for our parking and bus areas addressed in the new construction. HMS’s Outdoor Lighting is non-existant in the back of the school and the front of the school is very dimly lit. The asphalt in the front where buses and teachers park is original to the school being constructed. We were in shock when these items one month were taken off. When a parent caught what had happened, we were told it was a budget item that needed to be cut to stay on budget.
    I wrote this piece as an educational piece to better help all of us to learn from what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what we believe in to help our schools, and our community proud of the work that we all do together. This isn’t my Chamblee, my Dunwoody, my Lakeside or my Cross Keys. These are all our students in the DCSD system and many times we forget that. We can learn from others and we will all prevail to make a better school and a better school system.
    @ Cere – You are correct, things are changing, but we need to work together to fight for the best use of our tax money and the best outcome for our students.

  6. @ Kirk. You must have read my mind.

  7. Bill Armstrong

    Lynn: I fully agree this is all our system, all our schools & not just “mine.”
    I fact – if there is one thing I get criticized for on here more than any other – it’s seems to be thinking globally – beyond our Chamblee cluster & region. Well, that & apparently any trust I put into those putting this plan into place.
    Your experience & input is valuable, much more so than just complaining about how bad things were & are. “@ Cere – You are correct, things are changing, but we need to work together to fight for the best use of our tax money and the best outcome for our students.” Yes indeed. And they won’t get any better unless we work together.

  8. Elizabeth Wong Mark

    Lynn, very well stated and researched! Students cannot benefit or learn in overcrowded and under-resourced conditions. Regarding the construction committees, continuity is the key to help prevent things from falling into deep cracks. I don’t know what the best solution is to ensure this continuity, but that needs to be a priority! Also agreed that a new high school is needed in Region 1; do not try to add here and there b/c that pulls apart any semblance of a unified local community. My question: why can’t DeKalb build a new high school, and have its own STEM high school? Gwinnett has its nationally recognized school of mathematics, science, and technology. Yes, it took tons of hard work, persistence, and commitment but it can be done! Call me naive for wanting to highest quality available for all of your kids.