By Meg Skinner Jackson
Meg Jackson is a parent who attends Germantown Municipal School Board Meetings on a regular basis. She has a BA in Economics from the University of Memphis, and freely admits that she would rather repair a toilet or rewire a light fixture than pick out paint colors or curtains.
At the November 20th school board work session, I sat through a presentation of plans for Germantown’s new elementary school. The meeting took place in the multipurpose room of Riverdale’s beautiful new addition. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but notice that the new school design bears a striking resemblance to the building in which we sat. It is not surprising that the new elementary school would be similar in design. Throughout all of the discussions for the Riverdale addition, Superintendent Manuel and his staff talked about establishing a “Germantown brand”. The Riverdale expansion would be the first example, and the look and functionality of every school to be built or remodeled in the future would reflect this brand.
Before designing the new yet-to-be-named elementary school, the Germantown Municipal School District gathered a great deal of community input. At the beginning of this year, the district posted a survey asking stakeholders what they would like to see in the new elementary school. The results were prepared and presented to the Design Review Committee in March, but this was well before many of those same community “wants” had been put into practice at Riverdale. Let me say right here that the middle school building at Riverdale is impressive. It is bright and colorful and has many modern features. However, as I watched the PowerPoint presentation and listened to the discussion, I started to wonder about a few things. Were there elements to the design that were merely pretty and not practical? Before we spend $25+ million dollars on a new school (which is essentially Riverdale 2.0), I think we need to gather as much constructive criticism about the building we just opened. I wanted to ask the students, teachers, and parents who use the building every day what they like and don’t like about the building. I created a simple fill-in-blank survey asking for feedback, and will attempt to summarize the results here, but before we get started, here are links to the GMSD Board meetings and PowerPoint presentation.
The discussion starts at the very beginning of the work session video, but the sound quality is not the best. It is helpful to scroll though the Power Point slides as you listen. You can get more information about the Design Review Committee and view their meeting minutes by using this link.
The Riverdale Survey
The survey link I created was posted in various places on Facebook and Next Door. As of this writing, I have received 37 responses. The distribution of respondents is shown in this chart.
Overwhelmingly, people in all categories think the Riverdale building is beautiful. They especially like:
· The layout of the building
· The windows and lighting
· The water fountains with bottle fillers
· The technology
· The dedicated spaces (The Science/STEM lab, band room, choir room, art room, the multipurpose room, and the new gym are all a big hit.)
As one would expect, the responses indicate that this building is a tremendous improvement over the portables it replaced. It is worthwhile to note that parents of special education students were particularly complimentary of the new building. They like having an elevator, having dedicated classroom space, and they like the modern bathrooms with adequately sized handicap stalls.
There are a few issues with the design, however. Some of these I believe are already being addressed in the new building, but some are not. I will attempt to break them down.
While parents, teachers and students alike seem to love how the gym looks, several complained that is noisy. It lacks sound baffling, and the acoustics are terrible. Further, they stated that there is not enough seating, suggesting that there should be bleachers on both sides. There were also complaints that there were no water fountains in the gym, and no offices or storage rooms for PE teachers. Locker rooms are not attached, are too small, and are not set up to provide privacy for changing clothes. Specifically, students who are changing clothes are visible anytime someone opens the hall door. One commenter indicated that the basketball goals may have been installed incorrectly.
These complaints are particularly concerning, because at the presentation for the new school, it was stated with pride that the gym would be identical to Riverdale’s new gym. Looking at the PowerPoint presentation (which is very fuzzy and difficult to see online), it appears that the new elementary gym only has bleachers on one side, and that the PE offices, storage, and locker rooms are not directly attached. I hope the district will consider adding water fountains to the new gym, and hope that noise/sound issues will be addressed at both locations.
Noise complaints were not isolated to the gym. Respondents mentioned similar problems with noise in the multipurpose room. Sound baffles were installed to address the issue, but they are not working. I can attest to that from my experience sitting through the school board meeting. Sound was bouncing all over the room. It was difficult to hear much of anything, and I was seated within 15 feet of those who were talking. If you watch the video link posted above, you will see what I mean. One teacher indicated that the walls between classrooms do not contain soundproofing, so what is going on in one room can easily be heard by students in the adjacent room. There is also a fair amount of noise from people walking down the halls, and from the scraping of chairs on the upstairs floor. I would have to imagine that is distracting and does not provide the best learning (or teaching) environment.
The Parking and Carpool lines
There were many comments about the lack of parking at Riverdale and the very limited queuing area for carpool drop-offs. I am happy to report that this issue is not likely to repeat at the new elementary school. Whereas Riverdale can only queue a scant six cars on property, the new school will be able to queue a whopping 160! The city and district were both concerned about traffic backing up onto Forest Hill Irene, so they have worked hard to accommodate as many cars as possible on the property. A couple of respondents suggested a covered walkway for students. Note that the new school plans do show a covered area to protect students during inclement weather as they wait for bus (or car pick up?).
The Front Entrance
Three non-staff indicated that the entrance at Riverdale is now difficult for those with disabilities and for those who are trying to enter with a stroller. Apparently, the handicap parking spots are not located close to the main entrance, and the wheelchair ramp is long and steep. Riverdale was trying to make do with the land it already had, so there were some challenges with fitting in some of these logistical details. I am hopeful that the district will pay closer attention to the location and ease of accessibility of handicap parking at the new school. They may want to ask those in wheelchairs for their input, keeping in mind that not everyone has a power chair nor an attendant to push them.
There are not enough stalls to accommodate the students, and they are not sufficiently supplied with paper, soap, etc. When the Riverdale plans were unveiled at a public input session, I saw that there were not enough bathrooms and asked the architect about it. He was not concerned and was convinced that what they had in the plans would be sufficient. Apparently, it is not sufficient. To compound the problem, the stalls are equipped with small toilet paper holders (the kind that hold one small roll at a time) instead of the large holders one usually sees in public restrooms. It was noted that they are frequently out of toilet paper.
From what I can see (again, the PowerPoint is blurry), the new school may also have a bathroom problem. The second floor shows two sets of restrooms, and I see two, possibly three (?) bathrooms on the first floor. It is more difficult to corral first graders than middle schoolers through a restroom break. More stalls mean less time wasted during the day. One of the board members pointed out that there was no teacher bathroom on the second floor of the new school. The board agreed that the architect should probably find a way to squeeze one in somewhere so the fourth and fifth grade teachers would not have to travel downstairs for a restroom break.
There is not enough space in the new building. This was the number one concern mentioned by parents, students, and staff. The building lacks enough classrooms. Those dedicated rooms that everyone loves? Some of those are being used as regular classrooms. Many feel that the Science lab and STEM lab should be separate, because two classes cannot meet in there at the same time, which hampers scheduling. In fact, this lab has been commandeered as a regular classroom, so students are not able to use it for science lab. It was also highly recommended that the new school have a computer lab, something Riverdale lacks. More than one person noted that while band, art, and choir all had their own dedicated rooms, orchestra does not. The orchestra must travel like nomads, sometimes using a room in the old building and sometimes using the multipurpose room, where the acoustics are terrible. Everyone agreed that the new school should be built with more space than it needs. All felt that the additional space would be filled in no time, allowing the “dedicated use” rooms to remain dedicated as intended.
Beyond the lack of classrooms, all categories of respondents said that the school needs more storage space. Neither teachers nor students have enough storage in the classrooms. There are not enough lockers, causing students to share lockers. Inside the classrooms, students do not have anywhere other than backpacks to store supplies. This causes multiple trips across the room to retrieve what they need from their backpacks. More on this in the next section, but it can be noted that there will be no lockers in the new elementary school. Instead, the students will have cubbies and backpack hooks. During the board meeting discussion, they mentioned the possibility that these cubbies and hooks could possibly be located outside, in the hallway. I sincerely hope I misunderstood what they were saying, because as a mom, I can tell you that even when property is being supervised inside a classroom, things go missing. I would have to imagine that any item stored out in a hallway would be fair game for sticky fingers.
The Furniture and Finishes
There were many compliments about the new flexible furniture. Parents like how it looks and how it can be configured in many different arrangements. Teachers, on the other hand, have mixed feelings about it. Some feel that the furniture in their rooms does not adequately meet their students’ needs. Others want more storage for students such as below-the-chair baskets for easy retrieval of classroom items. It was suggested that the district consult teachers in each content area to determine what type of furniture their classrooms should have, since different subjects have different needs. The durability of the furniture is a big concern. Several parents and teachers commented that it is not of the highest quality, and many fear that it will not last long. Several items are already broken! Better quality furniture was highly recommended for the new school.
The round tables in the multipurpose room are also problematic. It is odd that the same people who chose classroom furniture that could be configured in so many different ways would also choose large round tables for the multipurpose room, which do not make good use of space. (Note: Wedding and conference planners know that round tables require significantly more space than rectangular tables.) Further, these round tables appear to require a great deal of manpower to set up and put away every day. The rendering for the cafeteria in the new elementary school shows the same round tables. Presenters stated that the new cafeteria will only seat 250 students at a time. I have to wonder if we could fit more students into the cafeteria by using a different table shape. Otherwise, this new elementary school may be doomed to repeat the extended lunch schedules that other schools have, where first lunch begins at 10:20, and the last begins at 1:00. The new school will house 739 students at optimal capacity and 815 at maximum capacity. However, Superintendent Manuel mentioned that if they were to use all available rooms, the building could accommodate up to 900 students. I’m not sure how many students can be seated at once in our existing elementary school cafeterias. Please, someone let us know so we can compare, but I imagine that the “old” Riverdale cafeteria holds more than 250 students at once.
In addition to the furniture, some respondents questioned the durability of the interior building finishes. The floors and the drywall are already showing signs of wear. The building has only been open for four months. This is a problem that really should be resolved in the new elementary school. Since there is no soundproofing in these walls, maybe a different type of building material should be considered altogether. And speaking of building materials, let’s talk about...
There seems to be a love/hate relationship with all that glass. While everyone loves the natural light if provides, safety remains a concern. It was noted that for tornado drills, students must evacuate to the old building. This poses the question, “Where will students in the new elementary school go?” The new school seems to have an abundance of glass too. The other concern for the glass is the incredible amount of maintenance it requires. Glass is irresistible to children, who like to leave handprints all over it. The cleaning staff cannot stay on top of 900 hands walking down the halls every day… and that is with 451 middle school kids. Can you imagine how much worse it will be with 800 K-5 kids? And since a few comments indicated that the heat and air is not functioning well at Riverdale, I have to wonder if that is due to faulty or inadequate HVAC systems, or if there is simply too much heat loss/gain with the glass.
From reading the responses, I have a few takeaways that the district should consider. They really need to survey their teachers and staff anonymously to determine improvements that can be made to the new school design. Teachers will be more honest when they do not fear repercussions. At a minimum, the new school needs:
· More space, both in number of rooms and storage within the rooms
· Better soundproofing and acoustics
· More durable and appropriate furniture and finishes
· Bigger gym with more seating, water fountains, and attached locker rooms, storage, and office space
· Restrooms with an adequate number of stalls, soap dispensers, toilet paper holders, and paper towels
· Less glass (or increased staff to maintain it)
I hope it is not too late to address at least some of these issues without significantly impacting the budget. It would be a real shame not use the information we already have to prevent future mistakes in design. We will be living with the new school for many decades, so we should do whatever we can to make sure it fits our needs.