In January of 2014, when Dr. Shawn A. Smith became superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, he saw a hole in the district with regard to facilities planning and long-term maintenance. Therefore, he spearheaded the Blue Ribbon Facilities Plan, the district’s multi-year initiative to update, secure and plan for the future.
“Every student and employee deserves a vibrant, safe environment that is conducive to learning and teaching,” Smith says. “Strong schools yield strong communities.”
Between 2015 and 2020, more than $174 million have been invested in capital improvement projects. That is outside of 2019’s $191 million capital referendum, used to renovate the two high schools and four remaining elementary schools, make aesthetic upgrades to the Early Learning Centers, and update playground equipment.
To date, the district has completed Crestview Elementary, McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology, Lawrence Central and Lawrence North stadiums and auditoriums, Mary Castle Elementary, Belzer Middle School’s concessions area and track, Skiles Test Elementary, Indian Creek Elementary, Harrison Hill Elementary, Lawrence Central and Lawrence North softball stadium upgrades, Sunnyside Elementary, and Amy Beverland Elementary.
In 2020 district leaders broke ground on a new transportation facility, scheduled for completion in late 2021. They also started full renovations at Lawrence Central, Lawrence North, Brook Park Elementary, Forest Glen Elementary, Oaklandon Elementary, Winding Ridge Elementary, and the four Early Learning Centers. The Early Learning Centers and elementary schools will be completed this fall.
“We have some buildings built in the 1960s and others in the 1990s, so the needs across buildings are vastly different,” says Dr. Dana Altemeyer, director of communications. “One thing that’s consistent across the board is our commitment to safety, so we put enhanced safety and security measures in place in all buildings, including the reconfiguration of entryways to make them more secure.”
Some of the security upgrades include bullet-resistant glass, keyless door access, new video systems and new cameras. The district leaders also implemented a buzz-in system for all visitors to the building, created separate bus and parent traffic, and zoned buildings for limited access.
“I think sometimes there may be a misconception that the school just added a fancy facade onto the building, but there is so much more to it than that,” Altemeyer says.
Contemporary learning spaces are different than they were back in the 1960s, starting with bandwidth capacity in a 1:1 learning environment where students in all grade levels have devices. As for flexible learning spaces, elementary schools have now all been equipped with large maker-space labs, which are multi-purpose rooms that promote hands-on learning in areas such as design, 3D printing, audio-visual, hand tools and programming. New spaces for exceptional learners meet the cognitive and physical needs of students with more profound disabilities.
“These spaces allow the students to better receive services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and needed medical support,” Altemeyer says.
Over time the scope of the project has continued to grow. Currently, there are 11 different construction projects happening simultaneously. Other projects have tackled inequities among facilities. For instance, Lawrence Central’s decades-old pool, lovingly referred to as a hot tub, needed to go. Lawrence North’s pool, built in 2012, had some structural issues.
“When we think about growing the aquatics program as well as equity in the offerings between our two schools, the community felt strongly that we needed to have two competitive aquatics facilities, and we were responsive to that by implementing a plan for a 50-meter pool at both buildings,” Altemeyer says.
The high school renovations are taking place in phases. Work will not be finished until 2024, as school remains in operation during construction. Plans are underway for building a three-story academic wing onto the front of both Lawrence Central and Lawrence North. Once students can move, additional demolition and construction can take place.
Capital projects planned for 2023 include Belzer Middle School and Fall Creek Valley Middle School, which will target specific needs at each building. Once those are complete, the district will start over with reassessing the needs of schools.
“The district was in a place where some of the buildings had areas that had fallen into disrepair over time,” Altemeyer says. “Maintaining a cycle revisiting all facilities is far more cost-effective.”
While academics are at the forefront of everything that the school corporation does, curb appeal matters too, as strong schools protect property values.
“People don’t want to send their children to dilapidated, outdated facilities,” Altemeyer says. “We want students, families and community members to be proud of their schools.”
Take Forest Glen, which two years ago had carpet on the walls. While the education was still of high quality, as evidenced by the year-round wait list, the building looked tired and dated.
“When you step inside a fresh, revitalized, colorful space, it’s inviting and exciting,” Altemeyer says.
Feedback from parents, students, faculty, staff and community members has been positive.
“As a parent, employee and community resident, the renovations bring an additional layer of pride and excitement,” says Lawrence Central Principal Franklyn Bush. “The vision to ensure that Lawrence Township schools are the top of the line in every aspect is important for alumni, and current and future students.”
“The community is proud to live and work in Lawrence Township,” adds Altemeyer, who notes that when they have dedication ceremonies, retired teachers and alumni often come back to see the renovated spaces. “There is a sense of pride as everyone feels the energy and vibrancy of a new facility.”