Last Tuesday was, all things considered, a relatively normal day for the students and staff of Lawrence’s Southwest Middle School and the neighboring Sunflower Elementary School.
While police remained engaged for several hours in an armed standoff a mere half mile west of the schools, kids and teachers continued their usual routine — lesson plans went on without a hitch, and so did lunch. The schools had both received secure entrances — where visitors are allowed entry by office staff — as part of the Lawrence district’s 2013 bond issue. And during Tuesday’s police standoff, both schools’ exterior doors stayed locked, as they do each school day, with no entry or exit allowed while police worked the nearby scene.
Had a similar situation occurred at Lawrence High School, Superintendent Kyle Hayden said, the results may not have been so seamless. That’s partly why he and other district leaders are pushing for an $87 million bond issue that would, among things, provide a safer and more secure campus for the aging high school.
“At Lawrence High School, you would have to go to all those entrance and exit points and lock them down, but then kids couldn’t move from the annex back to the main building, or the (technical education) wing back to the main building,” Hayden said, referring to a hypothetical lockout or lockdown at the school, which has roughly 30 entry points. “So, it would completely restrict movement to where it paralyzes your day.”
The bond issue would allocate more than half its budget, about $50.8 million, toward improvements at LHS. If voters decide to approve the bond next month, they’ll likely see a mill levy increase of 2.4 mills, district officials estimate, or an approximate $55 tax increase per year for the owner of a $200,000 home.
And safety, Hayden said, is one the first issues the district hopes to address in its sweeping renovation proposal for LHS.
A safe and secure campus
For educators like Hayden, “Columbine changed everything.” The 1999 massacre that ended in the deaths of 15 people at the suburban Colorado high school “triggered a whole new era of thinking about safety and security in a much different way,” he said.
School officials, architects and construction crews weren’t thinking about mass shootings when they designed and built LHS in 1954. Such incidents were rare at the time, and safety and security standards then applied mostly to fire and tornado drills, Hayden said.
Now, more than 60 years later, at a time when school shootings have become increasingly common nationwide, school districts are trying to balance that “safety and security piece,” he said, “with how teaching and learning are evolving.”
The 2013 bond issue established a secure entrance, through which office staff allow in visitors, at LHS, as it did at all schools in the district. LHS has some 30 entry points scattered around its maze-like campus, but that’s not really the problem here, Hayden said, at least where safety is concerned.
School staff can keep those doors locked, preventing any intruders from getting in. But “students should be able to move within the campus during the school day without having to go outside and move into an unsecure space,” Hayden said.
To that end, the district is proposing links be constructed between the school’s main building and its separate annex classrooms, as well as a corridor to the school’s existing technical education wing. The link would enclose an existing courtyard, providing an opportunity for the area to become an “outdoor experiment and maker yard” for science classes.
Cramped classrooms and corridors
“Lawrence High has been pieced together over a period of time since 1954. Different, little things have been done, but nothing’s ever been done comprehensively,” Hayden said. “So what you end up creating is kind of a maze of a school. It doesn’t flow well.”
The flow at LHS, he said, isn’t helped by the unprecedented growth the Lawrence school district has experienced within the last several years, which Hayden said equates to about 500 additional students district-wide over the last half-decade. LHS' current student population is 1,600, and the school has a maximum capacity of 1,800.
But the issue here, Hayden said, is mainly inefficiency. Twenty-nine percent of classrooms at LHS meet current standards that call for 24 square feet per student. That's an issue, he said, because it means most of the school's classrooms can't effectively host average class sizes of 24 to 28 students.
At LHS, “18 would be your maximum, because there’s not enough square footage to put all the kids in,” he said. “Or you do pack 25 kids into a space that’s just woefully inadequate and allows zero room for movement.”
It’s a “typical scenario” teachers and students deal with every day at LHS, and as enrollment continues to climb across the Lawrence school system, Hayden wants to address the problem sooner rather than later. The proposed bond improvements would add a total of 27,000 square feet to the school, including an east addition that would create space for expanded classrooms and address thermal and moisture concerns along the school’s existing masonry wall.
“With the 21st century model of trying to have students work together and collaborate, they need to be able to move,” Hayden said. “And the current classrooms at Lawrence High just won’t make that happen.”
The bond improvements would also include an expansion of the school’s food service area that would increase the number of serving lines and a proposed outdoor dining patio that could double as an outdoor space for students throughout the day.
LHS students would also see their lockers reduced in size by 50 percent, creating widened corridors that would ease flow during passing periods and also free up space for large learning pockets. These break-out study spots, filled with flexible furniture and located outside the traditional classroom setting, began popping up in Lawrence’s elementary schools with the passing of the district’s 2013 bond issue.
Creating equitable schools
An underlying goal of the newest bond issue is bringing Lawrence’s aging secondary schools — none more so than Lawrence High School — up to the standards ushered in by the 2013 bond projects, which focused on transforming Lawrence’s elementary schools into the “21st century learning environments” Hayden has trumpeted.
Within the district’s multimillion-dollar improvement plan are the types of projects that often go unseen, Hayden said, but that will ultimately address the equity issues facing students at older, mid-century buildings like LHS and West Middle School. Part of equity, he said, is physical comfort.
All schools, including LHS, would receive roof repairs or replacements, as well as LED lighting (replacing fluorescent technology) that could potentially save the district $97,000 a year, according to cost estimates by architecture firm Gould Evans.
Hayden said he’s heard reports about LHS' antiquated heating system shutting off in the middle of the winter. That’s an issue, he said, that students at the newer, more suburban Free State High School aren’t experiencing.
The proposed bond issue, he said, would address equity concerns between the two facilities — as well as the experiences of Lawrence students over time, as they age and move through the system.
Also among the proposed improvements at Lawrence High School, according to the district's master plan, are:
• Renovated fine arts areas, including the auditorium stage, orchestra room, storage and rehearsal space
• Renovated PE and athletics locker rooms
• A modernized library media center
• A renovated administrative area
• A renovated career and technical education area
• An expanded and renovated natatorium with a new HVAC system and drainage channel, and an expanded pool deck
• Minor renovations to the auxiliary gym, including the addition of new permanent bleachers in the mezzanine
• Rerouting of the fire lane and public entrance to 19th and 21st streets
• An expanded bus lane
• Several configurations for gender-neutral restrooms are among options in an ongoing discussion surrounding LGBTQ accessibility in the district. All schools part of the proposed bond issue would receive more private shower areas in locker rooms as well.