School Climate & Safety

Reporter’s Notebook

October 08, 2003 4 min read
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Construction Program, School Disaster Plans Covered at Conference

Inspired by the volunteer-driven Habitat for Humanity International home- construction program, a group that pushes for better school facilities is hoping to create a program to help renovate schools in poor areas.

The Council of Educational Facility Planners International announced plans for the new program at its annual conference, held here Sept. 27-30. Under the program, organizers say, older school facilities in impoverished communities would be remodeled into healthy and environmentally friendly buildings.

A pilot project is already in the works: the renovation of Spring Garden Elementary School, a 1930s-era school in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood.

Paragon Schools, as the undertaking is being called, taps in to the pocketbooks and expertise of the group’s members, who include more than 3,000 architects and district facility planners. It is loosely modeled on Habitat for Humanity, which relies on volunteers and contributions to build houses for low-income families in blighted neighborhoods.

“What Habitat for Humanity has done for housing, we aim to do for schools,” said Barbara C. Worth, a CEFPI assistant director. “We are not just rebuilding a school, we’re rebuilding a neighborhood.”

Without the interest of the CEFPI, the Spring Garden Elementary structure would likely be torn down, she said.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based group will choose older schools in poor areas and seek to make those buildings cornerstones of their communities.

Ultimately, the CEFPI’s foundation will use the Philadelphia school and any future sites as laboratories to determine how structural features affect student learning.

To participate in a school improvement project, CEFPI members must contribute $5,000 and supplies or services. For instance, one architectural firm has volunteered to provide architectural drawings for the Spring Garden project, and a manufacturer has donated new flooring for the school. The group is also soliciting grants from foundations to help pay for construction costs.

The planners say they will use long-lasting, environmentally sound, energy- efficient products to equip the school with “sustainable” features. They are looking at designs to improve air quality and provide alternative heating and cooling systems.

They plan to begin work on the Philadelphia school next spring, said David L. Schrader, a Philadelphia-based architect helping to oversee the project.

Most public schools have crafted or updated emergency-preparedness plans in the two years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Many of those plans, though, could be greatly improved, said panelists at one of the conference’s continuing education workshops.

While having such a plan is essential, having it in a place where it can be readily viewed is equally important, advised James A. Hutchison, the president of jaed architects and engineers in Wilmington, Del.

The plans are preparation not only for terrorist threats and student violence, but for natural disasters as well. Several audience members said that they called on their plans last month when Hurricane Isabel disrupted lives throughout a large stretch of the East Coast.

It’s critical for schools to keep current working drawings of their facilities— not just the architectural drawings from when the school was first constructed— on file and have those readily available to emergency crews in case of a disaster, the panelists said. The drawings should detail every space in the school and changes that may have been made since the school was built. Aerial photographs are also a great asset.

Moreover, the experts said, most schools are violating federal law because they neglect to mark on such maps where hazardous materials are stored.

The panel showed how new computer software that works with wireless videocameras can allow school administrators and safety workers to see live shots of schools and access the information on a moment’s notice.

Nicholas Vacirca, the head of school plant planning and maintenance for the Delaware Department of Education, said that his state has provided local schools with the thick manual of the state’s emergency plan, as well as more user-friendly flip charts that list the 10 steps for every type of emergency the state could foresee.

Mr. Hutchison said schools should also draw on county emergency-management agencies for technology and expertise, and those agencies need to have school information on hand.

The process of closing schools and building new ones poses tricky choices for district leaders, especially when residents feel the process is tainted by insider politics.

In Detroit, where enrollment is declining and the population is shifting from one side of the city to the other, facilities planners have had to make many of those school choices and then offer a defense to a skeptical community.

Allen C. Rawls, the deputy director of Spillis Candela dmjm, a Detroit-based architecture and engineering firm, advised districts to make the areas with the greatest needs the first priorities when constructing new schools.

Then, he said, school leaders should hold community meetings and use other means to communicate the rationale behind their decisions. “The best way to achieve equity and balance is, first of all, give everyone an idea of the big picture,” he said at a session here. “You have to get the word out, and continue to get the word out, that a project is not for one area but for the entire city.”

—Joetta L. Sack


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