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Tuesday, December 19, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

School communities to have more say in new facility designs

Following an intensive community engagement process in the drafting of the 2017 bond package, Austin Independent School District staff informed the board of trustees at its Dec. 11 work session that the designs of the new facilities will continue in that spirit by prioritizing the inclusion of school communities in the implementation of the Facility Master Plan Update.

The $1.1 billion bond package was approved by voters on Nov. 7, providing the necessary funds for the district to build new facilities and modernize existing ones. Up-to-date technology and infrastructure will not be the only way these schools will be renovated. The design of classrooms and buildings themselves, Director of Planning Services Beth Wilson said at the meeting, will better reflect 21st-century learning principles, health and safety, and sustainability.

One of the core frameworks proposed in the district’s Educational Specifications, or design guidelines, are “learning neighborhoods,” where learning spaces are less isolated and disconnected but flow into each other, even outdoors. “A lot of people are (mistaking this) for the 70s model of open concept schools,” Wilson said. “What we’re really talking about are spaces, classrooms and studios that can be quickly rearranged as the needs of that teacher or team of teachers changes.”

Additionally, community-dedicated and community-shared spaces have been recommended as a way to further establish schools as a social center in their respective neighborhoods. Trustee Ann Teich said that she was excited about how this design approach could enhance the district’s ability to collaborate with the communities it serves, but she recognized that some communities might be harder to reach than others.

“There are some communities in Austin that are resistant to modernization, I have heard, so how will we address that?” Teich asked at the meeting. “We need to win hearts and minds.”

Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson explained that each school will have a campus architectural team that will be made up of stakeholders, including students, to take on the planning of campus design. These teams will allow each school to customize the Education Specifications to fit the needs of their community. There will also be opportunities, Conley Johnson said, for the public to weigh in on the design decisions at critical junctures throughout the process.

“I think we are going to see some really fantastic new designs. Every school will be unique and different,” Conley Johnson said. “We’re not proposing Ed Specs that are going to standardize things across the board.”

The Education Specifications are categorized by school level, customizing design standards for elementary, middle and high schools. However, some schools do not fit into those classifications, like the Rosedale School for children with severe special needs, as Trustee Jayme Mathias pointed out at the meeting. Construction of a new facility for Rosedale on Lucy Road has been put on the fast track of bond projects to begin next year.

Conley Johnson said that the district was collaborating with the Rosedale Foundation and the University of Texas at Austin on the design of the new campus for that school. The construction of several new elementary schools is also on the bond fast track, and their designs are expected to begin formulation early next year.

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