What I Wish I Knew at the Start of Construction
School Administrator, October 2022

Just prior to my tenure leading the school system in Smithfield, R.I., I attended a community forum about the proposed reconfiguration of its elementary facilities. Despite the obvious need to close a failing facility and to invest in improvements to the district’s three other K-5 schools, not everyone in town supported the district’s plan.

My primary goal as the new superintendent was to get everyone on board, secure funding and see the project through to successful completion. Little did I appreciate how that goal would come to consume a significant portion of my time over five years as superintendent — in addition to sparking a new passion and career path for me.

With the $45 million facilities project nearing completion and a retirement date a year away, I enrolled in an Accredited Learning Environment Planner certification program run by the Association for Learning Environments. The rigorous, 10-month training includes modules focused on leading visioning and community engagement, assessing educational facilities, designing high-performance schools and managing facility projects.

My plan was to transition from the superintendency to a consultant who can assist school districts and building design firms with their plans for improving learning environments.

Six Takeaways

I wish I knew at the start of our major facilities project what I do now after completing the certification program and through my practical experience. I’ve generated six essential takeaways that all superintendents should understand prior to engaging in facility renovation or construction.

»Facility projects can be far-reaching. Renovation and construction projects that are explicitly grounded in guiding principles and a district’s mission do more than provide a warmer, more comfortable building for learning. The environment advances the district’s goals. A warm, safe and dry setting is a low bar. The biggest challenge is not funding but low expectations.

»Architects and educational facility planners have different perspectives from educators. They have their own ideas about how the learning experience of students can be improved, and their unique perspectives can contribute to an education leader’s understanding of instruction if the leader is open to differing perspectives.

»Tools and documents are key parts of the design process. These include educational specifications and owner’s project requirements, which can help communicate the needs of the school district to design professionals. They can provide the “why” to the community for decisions that are being made and ensure the project stays on goal despite any challenges that arise.

»High-performance school designs can serve as a learning tool for students. The designs result in a more comfortable, effective learning environment and save thousands of dollars in future utility expenses.

»The work doesn’t end when the construction crews walk away. Just as facility staff need training to operate and maintain new building systems, educators need guidance for using new instructional spaces to benefit students. This “educational commissioning” often is overlooked, leaving innovative spaces underutilized.

»Educators are essential to the process. Knowledgeable design and construction professionals aren’t sufficient for a facility project’s success. The direct involvement of well-informed education leaders working alongside these professionals is of paramount importance.