Original Thinking

When choosing a design for its newest school building, the Aptakisic-Tripp School District, Buffalo Grove, Ill., went about things in a rather nontraditional way.

Under a tight 15-month timeframe to provide additional space, Superintendent Douglass Parks, with the support of the school board, established a citizens and staff advisory committee to plot a strategy to meet the district's space needs in a cost-effective manner.

"Architects whom the district previously had a relationship with were asked to submit three schools that they thought were their best that we could build as a middle school. We did not want to go through the cost or time of design development," says Charles L. Cohen, assistant superintendent for business services for the district. "Committee members visited the schools that were submitted, and chose a building from one of the architects that we felt provided us with the best samples."

The result was Meridian Middle School, a grade 5-6 facility that was completed in 1995. The building originated from a design by Fanning/Howey Associates, Michigan City, Ind.

"The committee asked the architects to share what they would change about the structure if they were able to build it again," says Cohen. "Together, the building was redesigned, and the district saved at least $200,000 by doing it that way."

Even though the facility is four years old, it looks brand new, and Cohen is quick to add that it is not just because of the strong maintenance program.

"The kids are very respectful of this facility, and it shows in the way they take care of it," he says.

Small in size, big in stature Aptakisic-Tripp is a small district made up of one junior-high and three elementary schools housing a total of approximately 2,700 students. It encompasses just 6.9 square miles in an area that originally was mostly farms 25 years ago. Its size, however, also can be seen as one of its most important assets, allowing the district to focus personalized attention on providing the most up-to-date technology, equipment and programs to its students and community.

Currently, every classroom in the district has a telephone, television and VCR, and five computers that are completely networked. A network infrastructure and telecommunications upgrade that, among other things, will allow the district to broadcast from one central point and become 911-compliant is in its final stages.

The incorporation of technology does come with its special challenges, says Cohen.

"Having it [technology] is one thing. We need to ensure that it is being used meaningfully; in ways that make kids expand their ability to find, analyze and organize information."

As is the case with most school districts, Aptakisic-Tripp is experiencing some enrollment growth. While it is resulting in some classes being slightly larger than officials feel is ideal, the growth is very manageable. In addition, the district employs a professional demographer that updates projections every year.

"We are fairly maxed out for new residential areas," says Cohen. "We only have one major area left for possible residential development. We've had a lot of corporate growth lately."

The site of Meridian Middle School was planned in anticipation of possible enrollment increases. At the west end of the building, a large green space between the school and the parking lot was prepared and left in a condition where an addition could be constructed immediately.

"All the site prep work is already done," says Cohen. "The doors would just become corridors and we'd build another pod. We estimate we will be able to add 170 to 180 more kids."

Pushing the envelope No matter how controversial, if it can benefit students and the community, it will be investigated. This philosophy has led the district into two particular areas that garner strong emotions spanning both ends of the spectrum among education officials-performance contracting and privatization.

Aptakisic-Tripp entered into a performance contract more than two years ago, which covers three of its four buildings. The arrangement has allowed numerous improvements to the three buildings, including HVAC, lighting and roof replacement-all with a 10-year payback and guaranteed savings. The district currently is using the performance-contracting model to upgrade its districtwide communications system.

The district also recently completed its first year of outsourcing various non-educational services. Among the areas privatized are facilities management, night custodial work, food service and transportation.

"The day custodian in each building and maintenance workers are district employees, and the district continues to run two regular morning and afternoon routes, and buses for such things as field trips, activity routes and basketball games," says Cohen. "The district ends up saving significant dollars by operating these two buses."

Cohen adds that he went the privatization route to save money, as well as gain access to a larger labor pool. But he makes it clear that through the investigative process, the district kept the interests of the workers that would be affected by the decision in mind, which made the whole process run smoothly.

"We guaranteed all current employees a job with the contractor at the present rate, and mandated the coverage and benefits the employees were to receive," says Cohen. "We set the wage price so when the district went out to bid there was just overhead and profit, and who we thought would do the best job. It wasn't your typical low-bid situation because we told them [contractor] how much we were willing to pay."

Environment fosters pride While security has not been a problem for Aptakisic-Tripp, it regularly reviews its security preparedness. The district currently is incorporating card access into all of its buildings. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras also are being added.

"It's the times we live in; you have to take precautions," says Cohen. "We are not getting a lot of heat from parents or the community to do these things. We're being proactive."

Not only has security not been a problem for the district, but also vandalism and graffiti have been scarce. Much of this can be attributed to the great pride and ownership students and the community take in their schools.

One example of this is Meridian Middle School's learning disabilities class. Tired of looking out onto a roof area that contains HVAC units and exhaust fans, the teacher and class took it upon themselves to brighten up the area. After holding a number of fundraising events and applying for a grant, the class brought in a professional to outline murals on the walls of the roof's mechanical area. Then, as part of a class project, students painted the murals.

"It really says a lot about the pride taken in their school," says Cohen.

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