Resurrection

Reopening shuttered school

PHOTO BY SCOTT BERMAN

“It’s just a different deal now,” says Patrick Little, superintendent of East Jackson Community Schools in Michigan.

He’s talking about the process of bringing a shuttered middle school building back to life in the form of a K-6 facility. A different deal? You bet. And in a number of ways. Little showed what it took during a 2015 tour of the worksite with School Planning & Management.

The changing district needed a modern elementary school and is getting it, essentially by residents and educators seeing the problem and focusing on a potential solution: the district’s 1973-vintage middle school building, moribund in its cracked asphalt lot since being closed in 2010. The general feeling was, “ ‘Let’s figure this out and use what we have,’ ” says Little. The building would be extensively renovated in order to house two outmoded elementary buildings, which in turn would be closed and placed on the market.

In May 2014, voters passed a $14-million bond referendum, with half going toward the $7-million elementary school project, the other half toward other district improvements. Two of the four sending communities voted it down, but the other two supported it by a large margin, carrying the referendum across a finish line and straight into the starting gate.

Reopening shuttered school

PHOTO BY SCOTT BERMAN

The project itself required extensive renovation to create a modern learning environment of 84,000 square feet of technically equipped space to replace a total of 65,000 square feet across the two closed schools, making a more energy efficient school, adding office, community and board of education space in a new section at the front of the building, carving new classrooms in the space that had thus been vacated, and comprehensively combining assets, including library collections, and bringing the entire building forward. Little praised the work of architect Diekema Hamann and contractor Miller-Davis to make that a reality.

Reopening shuttered school

PHOTO BY SCOTT BERMAN

Coming Together. The new East Jackson Elementary School, located in Jackson Mich., inside what was the district’s former middle school opened on schedule Sept. 8, 2016. Following nine months of construction, the new school unites the students in kindergarten through sixth grade that formerly were split between Memorial and Bertha Robinson elementary schools. Total cost of the project was about $7 million. The two former schools were placed on the market.

As Little pointed out, things have certainly changed in the years since the building closed. There’s security, of course. For sure, it was in the forefront five years ago, but with the renovation comes further steps in direction of security, including a bank of secure main doors with an electronic entry system, and flatscreen monitors with split-screen views of the doors and of hallways. Elsewhere in the building, outside handles on a set of preexisting storefront doors have been removed, meaning that egress through those doors remains the same, while entry requires key cards: a simple enough move that enhances security while holding down costs.

In another change, the old school’s two computer labs have been removed, because as Little explains about a more recent change seen across many districts, wireless and mobile technologies mean that every room is essentially a computer room.

The project also includes new heating and cooling units, substantial work to the building’s roof and exterior walls, which among other things are now accommodating large operable windows and doors for optional access to playgrounds. There will be new flooring in a number of areas, including bathrooms, which will also have plumbing work and new partitions. Each classroom is being renovated, with new cabinetry, bubbler sinks, audio enhancement with wireless microphones for teachers, LCD projectors and smart boards — a number will be moved over from the schools being replaced. In addition to Flairwood, Kentwood Office Furniture, Holland Desk and Chair and Great Lakes Furniture Supply are reportedly among the suppliers for a variety of furnishings. There are also extensive renovations to an auxiliary gym, and large centrally located lunchroom and library areas.

Overall work seems to have gone smoothly, and Little pointed out two advantages: First, working on a closed school avoided any disruption of district students, faculty and staff. That situation helped open up the option of scheduling renovation and construction during off-season for trades. The eventual savings, according to Little: roughly three to four percent, an amount that enabled add ons including a community room.

Reopening shuttered school

PHOTO BY SCOTT BERMAN

On another point, a look at library design choices show one of the many ways this project has assertively remade spaces. Ringed by classrooms, the library is an open, flowing area, well appointed in carpet tile in a range of hues and patterned with narrow lines, perhaps suggesting the movement to come in the space. Metalbrace support piers extend their arms extend past orange can light fixtures suspended from a black ceiling, which itself is above white ceiling clouds with recessed lighting and trimmed in blue and green. Orange trim, like the lighting fixtures, references brick walls nearby. All this makes for a full palette, yet it works: the assortment is colorful for youngsters and is tasteful.

Reopening shuttered school

PHOTO BY SCOTT BERMAN

Bigger and Better. The former East Jackson Middle School, which opened in 1973, was closed by the district’s school board in 2010 as a cost-saving measure. The energy inefficiencies that contributed to the closure have been corrected by installing a new roof with greater insulation, as well as better electrical systems, energy efficient windows and doors and a new heating system. There are 32 classrooms in the new building, including larger kindergarten rooms with their own restrooms. The new school can accommodate 600 students.

Plenty is being changed outside as well: dilapidated fencing, tennis and basketball courts, as well as some fencing, are being demolished, with new courts, playgrounds for younger and older students, softball fields and a perimeter fence installed. In another move, a community walking path is being prepared: the idea in part being that parents will bring their youngsters to softball games and then use the paths while they wait.

Little has proactively kept the community informed of progress inside and out, and his efforts have included creating brief, well-produced videos, appearing on YouTube showing construction workers busy at the site, renderings of interior spaces and playground equipment and settings to come, bus logistics, and a schedule of upcoming community walk-throughs of the new facility. Little closes one of the videos by taking the opportunity to say thanks to the local board of education and district voters for their support for the project and their “vision” for the future of local education.

It’s a busy agenda for East Jackson. And all told, a different deal, indeed.

Reopening shuttered school

PHOTO BY SCOTT BERMAN

Some ideas about moving new schools into old spaces:

  • Look into how your project can be scheduled and sequenced to save money. What would it take to have the most favorable bid climate possible?
  • Expect the unexpected. Hold a high contingency.
  • Organize specialized committees and subcommittees consisting of members with diverse expertise.
  • Keep thinking through how your facility can be even more of an asset for the wider community, whether it’s in terms of community spaces inside or recreational facilities outside.
  • Put social media to work for you: keep the community informed with visual and explanatory online updates that complement other communications, such as newsletters.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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