Growth Spurt at LAUSD

June 28, 2006
Aggressive programs at Los Angeles Unified School District focus on maximizing building performance

While its mission of building new schools and making existing school facilities better is certainly admirable, one must look beyond this simple statement to realize the true impact of the commitment and dedication of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD’s) facilities services division to its communities and their future leaders. Not only is the district’s $19.2-billion school construction and repair program clearly aggressive, it is unsurpassed in the United States.

In the mid-1990s, LAUSD had not engaged in any comprehensive school-building program for three decades, but soon found itself in a severely overcrowded situation. To compound circumstances, growth rates also pointed to an eventual shortage of 200,000 classroom seats. Forced to find interim solutions - such as busing students out of neighborhoods to less-crowded schools, supplementing existing space with bungalow-type buildings, or turning to year-round calendars (with abbreviated, 160-day academic cycles) to accommodate needs - the district and voters recognized how unacceptable these conditions were for the long term. And, they were willing to pay to fix it. The initial set of projects was funded under Proposition BB in April 1997.

Since that time, the LAUSD’s facilities services division has been working diligently to address community concerns and meet expectations through its New School Construction Program and Modernization & Repair Program. Over the next several years, the district will complete the construction of approximately 150 new schools, as well as more than 70 classroom addition projects, at a price tag of $11.7 billion to accommodate its substantial growth in student population, and undertake an aggressive, $7.5-billion modernization, upgrade, and repair program to address the aging buildings throughout LAUSD’s 800-plus campuses.

In keeping with its promise to build better schools, LAUSD is following a comprehensive set of design principles and education-code requirements that (while not affecting the opportunity for each school to possess a unique, identifiable design) is the foundation of each project. Current core design principles comprise the best of form and function, and represent - essentially and effectively - a prototype for maximizing building (and building-occupant) performance.

Establishing Structure, Defining Principles
From project definition using these core design principles through construction and eventual school occupancy, LAUSD relies on an expansive group of diverse, experienced players to orchestrate the six primary components documented in the New School Construction Program:
1) determining classroom needs,
2) defining projects,
3) acquiring project sites,
4) the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)/due diligence,
5) designing projects, and
6) construction and school opening.

Within facilities services, LAUSD’s new construction team is comprised of two operating departments (real estate and construction), which are responsible for planning, land acquisition, environmental remediation, and construction. They are supported by two functional departments: community outreach, which builds greater public understanding, broader participation, and productive partnerships for LAUSD’s new construction, and school planning and design, which defines the need for new schools based on instructional objectives and enrollment forecasts, establishes designs for new schools, and provides support for special projects within the construction program. Staffed by architects, engineers, urban planners, public-policy analysts, demographers, and cartographic/geographic information system (GIS) technicians, the school planning and design department consists of three sections: master planning and demographics (MPD), education/special programs, and design management.

While MPD employs a sophisticated GIS database to analyze student seat deficiencies and education/special programs supports specific components of the construction program, the design management unit is tasked to deliver efficient, cost-effective, and architecturally appropriate designs that incorporate all educational programming needs and state requirements (including the Collaborative for High-Performance Schools [CHPS] standards, which support and facilitate the design of high-performance schools with respect to operating efficiency and quality learning environments). At the same time, design management must also consider community interests. With all elements in mind, the unit has developed LAUSD’s current core design principles.

● Be educationally supportive. Small Learning Communities which:
-Create smaller schools within larger schools.
- Provide spaces for students and teachers to mingle.
- Encourage collaboration between teachers.
- Incorporate recreational facilities consistent with California Department of Education (CDE) guidelines.

Be student and teacher friendly. Classrooms with:
- Sound-insulating windows and quiet mechanical systems.
- Sufficient locker space.
- Tackable wall surfaces.
- Modern, comfortable furniture.
- Whiteboard/projection areas.

Be technologically up to date. Schools equipped with:
-Internet connectivity (access to high-speed electronic communications).
-Advances in security and alarm systems.

Be community friendly. Schools as centers of the community, allowing for:
-Public use of playfields and gymnasiums.
-Public access to libraries, multi-purpose rooms, and auditoriums.
-Accommodation for persons with special needs.

Be environmentally friendly. Facilities with “greening” in mind:
- Usable, hardy, grass play spaces.
- Trees to shade and reduce heat.
- Recycling space.

Be energy conservative. 100-percent of all new facilities designed using sustainable design concepts:
- Energy efficiency.
- Reduction of maintenance.
- Use of daylighting and natural ventilation.
- Reflective colors to reduce heat absorption.
- Reduced-consumption water fixtures.
- Smart bathrooms.

Los Angeles Primary Center No. 5 (987 S. Mariposa Ave.)
Completed in October 2005, this 39,785-square-foot school’s unique design incorporates the use of concrete columns and generously proportioned windows to provide an abundance of natural light to the students. One level of underground parking conserves space and maximizes the student playground area. The project’s $22.3-million budget was directed toward adding 400 2-semester seats that equal 16 new classrooms for the district.

Performance Buy-In, Measurement
Although these design principles are solid and substantial, they are far from unyielding. In fact, says Lucy Padilla, director, design requirements, LAUSD, “When my responsibilities as director of design began more than 5 years ago, we started from scratch. Initially, and throughout that first year, we worked with CHPS to develop a standard. From that year of coordination, we developed an initial ‘design guide’ which has been updated yearly or on a half-a-year basis since. The design guide is for both new and existing facilities.”

“New construction” generally refers to new-site development, but Vince Coffeen, LAUSD’s director of design management, qualifies that other “new” projects might include a closed school slated for reopening or the repurposing of an existing facility (i.e. altering a middle school into a high school). “In all cases, we shepherd the process from AE selection through design review, basically ensuring that the guidelines are being followed.”

Since the program’s inception, Padilla, Coffeen, and Ying Wang, program manager, CHPS/energy, report to the Board of Education every 3 months with recommendations on fine-tuning or improving upon LAUSD’s design principles. Wang’s involvement includes reporting on the district’s energy- and performance-based “scorecard,” which monitors utility and sustainability objectives on projects once they are completed. “Our board is very knowledgeable, especially on high performance, and they’re very supportive,” she says.

LAUSD Modernization & Repair Program Furthers District’s Commitment

Within LAUSD’s facilities services division, the existing facilities branch is responsible for the district’s Modernization & Repair Program that encompasses 69 million square feet and more than 13,000 buildings. Over 18,500 projects are currently planned, under way, or have been completed as a result of Proposition BB - with more being defined as a result of Local Measure K (an approved bond in November 2002 that provides $3.35 billion for new construction, modernization, and repair), Local Measure R (an approved bond in March 2004 that provides $3.87 billion for new school construction, modernization, and repair), and Local Measure Y (an approved bond in November 2005 that provides $3.985 billion for new construction, modernization, and repair). The average existing LAUSD school is 50 years old; for this reason, the district’s more than 800 existing schools are in some need of repair and modernization.

Most of this repair work consists of roofing, plumbing, playgrounds, and air-conditioning. In addition to this repair work, new lunch shelters, upgraded fire alarm and access compliance systems, and quieter air-conditioning units are being installed; auditoriums are being renovated; and old asbestos is being cleaned up.

High performance, according to Padilla, Coffeen, and Wang, means much more than buildings with significant energy-efficiency or sustainability characteristics - although those attributes are crucial, too. “We were initially attracted to CHPS because it also relates to student performance in terms of natural daylighting, indoor air quality, acoustics, and more,” explains Coffeen.

Padilla agrees with Coffeen’s assessment, noting that cost concerns are relevant as well. “We’re also implementing a Small Learning Communities (SLC) concept,” she says. In order to raise student achievement, the district determined that reform was needed in secondary schools, specifically enabling SLCs of 350 to 500 students within secondary school sites with a more personalized and caring learning environment. According to the district’s website, which references various research studies, personalized learning environments can help create, stimulate, and even compel students to become more active and involved in learning and a wider range of activities. “We’re talking about not only the architectural parts [of the concept], but also educational and operational,” notes Padilla. “Right now, we’re working with a career development group so we can design appropriately for the classroom instruction. It’s interesting: Think how the architectural [angle] can inspire the operational and instructional aspects and tactically change the way educators teach today. Times have certainly changed.”

Unique Identity, Collaborative Community
As the roster of new school completions grows, design principles are tweaked to accommodate systems that allow everything from subtle security surveillance to lower maintenance requirements. SLCs, for example, offer adaptable designs: movable partitions to permit expansion of classrooms, utilities and technologies in all classrooms to enable multi-use teaching, the location of major utilities to the exoskeleton to allow for relocation and/or demolition of interior partitions, and minimal structural load-bearing interior walls to facilitate reconfiguration of classrooms and adjacencies.

Los Angeles Elementary School No. 1(4063 Ingraham St.)
With substantial completion in first-quarter 2006 and occupancy anticipated in third-quarter 2006, this project, originally planned as a primary center, has been redesigned into a new elementary school to contain 26 classrooms and the associated administration, library, and multi-purpose rooms. Total budget directed to creating 650 2-semester seats to this 55,214-square-foot building was $36.5 million.

Perhaps most meaningful, however, is the sense of identity each new school achieves as a result of thoughtful, reflective design. And, once again, collaboration abounds; every school is designed with local district staff, superintendents, and principals engaged to provide critical feedback.

With this collaboration, the community wins, too. Local district offices form community-based design task force committees and hold regular meetings throughout the design process. Intended to empower community representatives to interact with each project’s architect and provide input that may be important to the surrounding neighborhoods and community plans, this feedback is considered an element of the design criteria and, where appropriate, may be incorporated into the design of the school. The end result is schools that adhere to proven educational design principles while encompassing the unique needs of the local student body and community.

LAUSD may be offering its students, its communities, and its staff the best of all worlds, but the key to its success lies in one word: communication. With the same attention to detail it applies throughout all aspects of the country’s most substantial new construction and renovation program, the district’s facilities services division encourages involvement and collaboration to make learning environments better for students, staff, and the Los Angeles community.

Linda K. Monroe ([email protected]) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.

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