By Christy Merchant, IPLI Mentor, MSD of Warren Township
Here I sit, in spring 2023, planning a grand reopening celebration for my 60+-year-old school. Built in 1961, it has survived many life cycles, world events, natural disasters, and a pandemic while holding a safe place for little hearts and minds. I’ve learned a lot as a school leader through this project. Here are some key takeaways that may help another leader amid remodeling.
I quickly learned that asking questions, making requests, dreaming big, and seeking to learn came in handy! What’s the worst they can say…no? We asked for the moon in new furniture and landed on some pretty amazing pieces. We asked for the wildest playground and got an awesome place for imaginative adventures. We asked about flooring and paint colors, countertop surfaces, and switch plates that clean easiest. Learn to ask questions without fear, and your staff will learn to do the same from your remodeling project.
WEAR THEIR SHOES
When planning construction phases and temporary spaces, put yourself in the shoes of your staff members and students. What environment is necessary for each individual to be the most successful? Construction is loud and dirty. How will you support the needs of others during this process? Before putting someone on a cart…such as an art teacher…consider if you could do that job that way. Planning the phases of construction comes early and well before the ground breaks. Wear their shoes when looking at stages to give all a chance at success and a sense of belonging, even when displaced.
I was fortunate to work with a construction site manager that believed in strong communication. He met with me regularly and answered my calls and texts quickly. This allowed me to plan and prepare myself and my staff for each step. Did it need to move a set of classrooms to temporary learning spaces? Communicate timelines EARLY and repeatedly. Share pictures with your larger school community to keep everyone included. A building project of any size is never easy. But keeping everyone informed will help!
When a school goes through a major overhaul due to construction, you’ll find all sorts of things from way back that nobody claims anymore. Preparing for unclaimed spaces is essential to keeping the project moving. Gather a list of volunteers, student groups, community helpers, etc., to help when moving happens. The key is to remember to use more trash bags than boxes in some of those spaces! Also, consider flatbed carts and large trash bins as necessities for big moves.
As educators, we are quick to give others grace but critical of ourselves. During a large construction project, hiccups and changes are inevitable. Do not get hung up on what you can’t change but look for spaces where you can give encouragement and grace. Are bulletin boards blank in the temporary room? Offer to hang some butcher paper for quick color. Boxes stacked in all corners of a space? Thank that person for being organized. When timelines are looming, remember we are also learning in this work site.
One of our favorite construction parts was celebrating our crews when a new phase opened! Our entire building was remodeled, custodial closets included, with 8 phases over two years. Students loved seeing the work in progress, often leaving posters and notes of appreciation on the walls nearest the work sites. The crews became part of our school family, and our students learned about many trades in real time, a powerful side effect of seeing the work firsthand. There is nothing like honoring another person’s work; our students learned to appreciate our new building because they saw the sweat that went into it.
A building project, while living in the space, is so challenging. You can’t control the dirt, noise, or materials’ arrival. But you do have power as a building leader! Having the right mindset as a leader and modeling for your school is key to making it a success!