Saturday, March 2, 2013

Implementing a School Plan

     About twenty five years ago, I was working for a small landscape architectural firm.  I was the only woman designer in the firm at the time and I was usually given the 'dog' projects - the projects that no one else in the firm wanted to do.  One day I was handed a project that was essentially an addition to a local elementary school.  The school was not a glamorous project (it was a poor school with a very small budget), and it was in a part of the county that had a past history of huge vandalism issues. 
     As I met with the people involved with the proposed project, the budget and the vandalism concerns became the key factors in their design needs.  Secondary, but also a key component, was the fact that their students scored lower on testing than other area students and that they seemed to have no sense of school pride or loyalty.  The administrators attributed this to the fact that so many of their students were having to go to class in portable classrooms and they felt that this problem would go away when the addition was completed and the kids moved into permanent classrooms.  That was probably a correct assessment of the situation to a point, but a visit of the surrounding neighborhoods showed that this problem was obviously a neighborhood wide condition.
     As we progressed with the planning and more of the budget was taken for the building than originally planned, I began to really feel the pinch.  How was I to provide these students with a good, useful and stable site with no money to pay for the materials or labor?
     I eventually devised a plan.  Have the contractor do the rough grading of the site, build the addition, pave the additional parking and drives and then do the finish grading.  Have the students do the rest of the site installation.  The students ranged in ages from kindergarten through the fifth grade, thus there would be some more grown kids to do the heavier things if the required sizes were scaled back.
     I met with the Town Planning and explained the problems and my solution.  They agreed to allow the minimum plant and tree sizes to be reduced for this one project and to allow for a longer time period for the planting to be completed.  The school administrators agreed to allow me to have access to a portion of the student's time and to allow access for a couple of Saturday workdays where parents would be invited to join in.  The contractor agreed to pull the planting portion out of his contract and leave the site after finish grading and temporary seeding were completed.  That left me with the students.
     I wrote lesson plans for the teachers so that this work could be incorporated into their science studies.  Each grade had a task in the project.  The younger students grew plants from seed to be used by the older ones for planting.  Some of the grades did things to amend the soil like create compost and then incorporate it into the soil.  They actually had the perfect situation for obtaining the composting materials from their cafeteria scraps and the surrounding neighborhoods.  They learned quickly to instruct students to separate their non-compostable waste and their animal product waste from that they could use.
     Additional math lesson plans - think elementary geometry class - were written for the older students so that they could lay the information provided on the plan out onto the site.  They had a couple of wonderful lessons outside with string, old hoses and flagging (donated by a local surveyor) laying out the components of the plan in their school yard.
     In the end, after a couple of years the school was completely planted.  The kids had a great time doing the job and learned a good deal about botany, horticulture, soil studies and geometry.  More importantly, they took a great deal of pride in what they had accomplished.  Vandalism of the school site was virtually wiped out.  Students who did do damage, were resoundingly disciplined by their fellow students who had taken a vested interest in their school.  Subsequent students have been taught how to care for the plants as they grow and mature and are still benefiting from this project.
     The real lesson learned was that if you can get people to make the codes and regulations work for the project rather than against it and if you can include the people most effected by the project, the bulk of the problems foreseen will simply melt away.  The key is to include people in the plan, not to leave them out.

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