School Choice & Charters

School Renovation Becomes a Teachable Moment

By Jacob Bell — May 28, 2015 4 min read
Students from the Brookwood School in Manchester, Mass., sign the final beam before it is installed, signaling the end of the school-construction project.

Rather than allow a large-scale construction project to derail student learning, administrators and teachers at a private school in Manchester, Mass., incorporated the building process into the curricula—a partnership that also led the renovations to finish two months early.

Adding construction themes to the lesson plans of the Brookwood School, a pre-K through 8th grade institution, was part of a collaboration between the school and the project’s Beverly, Mass.-based overseer, Windover Construction, according to Nancy Evans, head of Brookwood’s lower school.

"[The construction] team came into rooms all the time throughout the school year to talk about what they were doing, to demonstrate, to say ‘come out and take a look,’” Ms. Evans said. “We got to see beams put into place, we got to see the scaffolding of the old building coming down.”

The project was part of a plan meant to improve Brookwood facilities that no longer supported the school’s increasing student population and project-based learning programs. Construction included the building of a new atrium, dining facilities, and a wing of classrooms, as well as the demolition and reconstruction of some classrooms.

The construction began in the summer of 2013, with expectations that remodeling would proceed into this school year. Due to the partnership, however, Windover was able to work during the school day instead of exclusively at night or over summer vacation—times that are usually more feasible for school construction projects.

Though students’ access to the construction site was strictly observational, Windover provided tours, cut portholes in walls, and left fences uncovered to accommodate student learning.

“It allowed the kids to learn from a theoretical standpoint in classrooms and see things happening … in a practical standpoint throughout the year,” said Stuart Meurer, the vice president of Windover. “We knew if we made it part of their everyday life, that the distractions and destructions to their learning atmosphere would be minimized.”

The access Windover provided to students and faculty allowed teachers in the lower school, which houses grades 3 and below, to apply building themes—from geometry to vivid sights and noises—into their math and English lesson plans.

“We let projects really come up organically,” said Suzy Light, a 2nd grade teacher at Brookwood who had her students use the sounds they heard on the construction site to write poetry. “With most of my colleagues, the general feeling was no apprehension at all because we were so excited about what we were going to get.”

Pre-K students performed a play in which the main character was the leader of the construction team, kindergarten and 1st grade students put on a musical version of “The Three Little Pigs” with an emphasis on building, and 3rd graders wrote weekly “Big Dig” reports based on interviews they had with the head of construction.

Brookwood also intertwined learning and construction in the upper school with its choice of “Dreaming Up,” a book that compares the buildings and creations that children make during playtime to world-renowned architecture, for the school’s annual “One School, One Book” project.

“We, right from the very beginning, honored the playfulness of children’s building, and then we could juxtapose that with the building taking place all around us,” Ms. Evans said.

Partnerships between building organizations and schools, like the one that developed between Brookwood and Windover, are primarily due to both sides’ willingness to step out of their comfort zones, according to Mike Glavin, the director of workforce policy and programs at Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., a national trade association in Washington.

“Often times it’s like two ships passing in the night, where educators and school administrators have their own lane that they’re focused in on—educating students and keeping them safe—and contractors have their own lane that they operate in, which is getting projects completed on time, on budget, and safely,” Mr. Glavin said.

The need for greater school-contractor collaboration may become more pressing, however, as research has projected an increase in the amount of school construction needed in the near future.

A 2014 report from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education, for example, found that, in a survey of roughly 1,600 U.S. schools between 2012 and 2013, 53 percent needed to spend money on repairs, renovations, and modernizations to have facilities meet the minimum requirements for normal school performance.

Additionally, developing relationships with schools has come to be of particular interest to contractors seeking to combat a major roadblock for their industry: construction’s bad image.

“Being able to expose students at any age to the realities of the construction industry—those being that it’s extremely safe, that it’s not as dirty as they necessarily think, that there is a great deal of math and critical thinking skills involved—it’s something we have contractors all over the country trying to crack,” Mr. Glavin said.

Coverage of more and better learning time is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation at www.fordfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as Massachusetts School Transforms Renovation Into Teachable Moment

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