The 21st Century School building project is off to a rocky start.
School closings and mergers have angered students, parents and communities.
Estimates of constructions costs have been higher than anticipated.
Moving students to temporary schools has been problematic.
The school design process has generally lacked the outreach, communication and collaboration it needs to be effective.
And almost every project is running behind schedule.
It has been a lot to ask of Baltimore City Schools to go from putting up a few buildings each decade to renew all of its schools in a decade, especially as the district is shedding staff each year in response to budget cuts.
But if we focus on making three improvements now, we can still build our schools, our learning and our communities as we promised at the beginning of this process.
1) We need to decide what kind of schools we are building.
Are we simply building schools with new paint, clean windows and air conditioning?
Are we building new schools with space for after school programs run by community organizations?
Or are we building schools that do both of these, but also involve and promote our communities with services, education and opportunities?
This third type of school requires that we not only design our schools differently, but that we have to think differently about the role of our schools, the hours they are open, and how we welcome our parents, community members and organizations into the school. If we build it they will come is a great assumption for a community school .. unless you lock it or charge fees for using it..which is what we do now.
2) We need to improve the outreach and collaboration of the school design process to include the concerns and wisdom of our teachers, students, parents, community members and experts.
I’ve spoken with school principals and teachers who had no idea of the status of the design or building process at their school and felt left out of the design decisions for their schools. If we are building these schools to encourage teachers to collaborate, why isn’t this design process the perfect learning collaboration for teachers, students and design experts? And why is the school design process run by City Schools running independently from the neighborhood design process run by Baltimore City?
3) We need to find better values in construction.
Independent building experts should be allowed to look over preliminary designs to find savings through design integration, better sourcing, bulk purchasing and long term savings.
We have a choice between checking some boxes on citizen involvement and building (clumsily) to the lowest allowed standard or blazing a trail for other school districts to follow. It’s time to decide which way we want to go.