Facilities Input Group set to make recommendation about school buildings to Avon Grove School Board
By Steven Hoffman
After more than 15 months of work evaluating the district’s school buildings and how well they support the rapidly changing educational needs of students, a Facilities Input Group is on track to deliver a non-binding recommendation to the Avon Grove School Board on Sept. 14.
The goal, according to Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese, is to develop a comprehensive facilities plan that will ensure that Avon Grove’s school buildings will meet the students’ long-term academic needs so that they are prepared to succeed.
“We need to have learning spaces that support our students’ success,” Marchese said during an interview last week. He added that the district must balance fiscal responsibility toward the taxpayers with the academic needs of students as they make decisions that will have a far-reaching impact.
In advance of the Sept. 14 meeting, Avon Grove sent out a newsletter to the community outlining the process that has been followed to reach this point and how the district will proceed moving forward.
Avon Grove enlisted Gilbert Architects to complete a facilities study in the fall of 2014, and the results of the study were shared with district officials in February of 2015. During the same time period, the school board updated its strategic plan that identified facilities planning as a priority.
In May of 2016, the district formed the Facilities Input Group, a task force comprised of a broad cross-section of the Avon Grove community―district administrators, parents from every school, residents from each municipality, current and former school board members, and other stakeholders.
“We aspired to have a good mix of representation,” Marchese said. “I think we have a good group of people. They have spent a lot of time and energy on this.”
The Facilities Input Group looked at the capacity and the utilization of each school building. The group reviewed enrollment projections, received information about the district’s current preventative maintenance plan, and discussed the data in the facilities study.
Regarding the current state of the district’s four school buildings, there are some inadequacies. All four schools are utilized at more than 100 percent of the functional capacity―both the Avon Grove High School and the Fred S. Engle Middle School have been over capacity for years, and portable classrooms are utilized to accommodate the number of students that the district has at the secondary level. There are currently 12 portable classrooms at the high school and 8 more at the middle school. The high school, built in 1957, and the middle school, built in 1961, have significant infrastructure shortcomings and are in need of repairs. The Penn London Elementary School, built 25 years ago, will have five portable classrooms for the upcoming school year, and the expansion to a full-day kindergarten program will place more demands on the building. The Avon Grove Intermediate School, built in 2002, is the district’s most modern building, but even that school has projected enrollments that will exceed its functional capacity.
“We have needs,” Marchese said. “and we need to come up with a plan to address them. If the district did nothing, the buildings would be overcrowded. And that’s not going to change.”
Marchese explained that the district has remodeled and expanded the buildings as necessary through the years.
“We’ve been doing low-level maintenance on buildings,” Marchese said, explaining that they have also completed larger projects like replacing the gym floor at AGI, upgrading the bathrooms at the high school, and putting in a new cafeteria floor at Penn London Elementary.
“We’ve also put a lot of effort into preventive maintenance,” Marchese said. “Our board has been very good about supporting that.”
According to Marchese, Avon Grove has, despite some of the physical limitations of the buildings, established strong 21st Century educational programming for the district's approximately 5,000 students.
“We’ve made a pretty significant investment in technology,” he said, explaining that in grades 6 to 9, there is a one-to-one ratio of Chromebooks to students, and that will expand to grades 10 to 12 for the 2018-2019 school year. Avon Grove has also developed a robust science, technology, and engineering curriculum. There is a high demand for specialized programs related to technology education, such as CAD courses and the state-of-the-art TV production studio that Avon Grove High School debuted in 2015. Right now, there are far more students who want to take these specialized programs that would give them an advantage when they enter college than there are courses to accommodate them. Space limitations make it difficult to meet the demand. In fact, Marchese said, Avon Grove can only accommodate about 37 percent of the requests from students.
Additionally, the classrooms at the high school simply aren’t large enough for collaboration among students. In education, collaboration is vital.
There are numerous educational opportunities that Marchese would like to extend to Avon Grove students. One example, he said, is a program where high school students who are interested in majoring in early-childhood education in college can have the opportunity to work with pre-kindergarten children so that they get practical, real-world lessons about the field they will be entering.
“We don’t have the physical space for that right now,” Marchese said.
The superintendent would like to see seminar-based courses at the high school where 70 or more students could be brought together to work on a project or for an occasional presentation. The seminar-based courses would replicate what takes place on university campuses.
Improved performance space would also be desirable for students who are interested in music or the performing arts.
“A point of pride for Avon Grove is the band, music, and performing arts programs,” Marchese said. “It would be nice to have those students perform in a state-of-the-art auditorium.”
Both the high school and the middle school have been remodeled and expanded through the years. There are site constraints to future expansion of both buildings. There are homes behind the middle school, which limits expansion there. At the high school, additional expansion could encroach on parking areas or athletic fields, neither of which is desirable. Traffic congestion around the middle school and high school is also an ongoing concern.
The Facilities Input Group toured each school building in the district in the fall of 2016, and reviewed each building’s educational model, enrollment, capacity, and facilities study evaluation. In the spring of 2017, the Facilities Input Group also visited recently built or recently renovated high schools in nearby districts to explore ways in which those districts addressed their students’ needs. The schools that they toured included Henderson High School, Rustin High School, Great Valley High School, and Upper Dublin High School. They then spent the summer discussing their findings so far as they moved toward making a non-binding recommendation to the school board.
According to Marchese, the Facilities Input Group had narrowed its focus to seven different options by the end of July. Upcoming meetings for the group will take place on Aug. 23 and Sept. 7, when discussions about the options will continue. Times and locations are posted on the district’s website at www.avongrove.org.
“The idea was to come up with things that connect to the mission of the district, the strategic outcomes that the district wants,” Marchese said.
To accomplish that, the Facilities Input Group received information about the educational vision for the district and updated details about a wide range of financial data, including the district's borrowing capacity.
Marchese said that the administration and the school board have made fund balance decisions in recent years that will enable the district to fund capital projects with less financing necessary. The school board decided to allocate one mill of collected tax revenues―currently about $1.8 million a year―into a capital projects fund to pay for ongoing building maintenance and any renovation or construction projects that become necessary.
Marchese emphasized that no decision regarding facilities planning has been made at this point, and the district will continue to be very deliberate as it works toward a decision. All options are still on the table, he said, including projects that would involve the renovation or expansion of existing buildings or new construction.
The district owns 150 contiguous acres of property less than one mile from the Penn London Elementary campus and about 3.5 miles from the Avon Grove High School campus. The school board gave serious consideration to constructing a school on the site a decade ago, but enrollment stabilized when the economy slumped and new housing starts dropped off.
The Facilities Input Group will offer a recommendation to the school board, most likely in September, and then community meetings will be held to get input from all the stakeholders in the district. “District officials want feedback from the community throughout the process,” the superintendent said.
“The administration and the school board are committed to keeping the entire Avon Grove community informed throughout the process,” Marchese said. “The board wants input from the community.”
Community members can share comments or ask questions by emailing school board members or by emailing the administration at AGFIG@avongrove.org. Comprehensive information about the Facilities Input Group's work up to this point is available on the school district's website.
The school board will be having discussions about the merits of the Facilities Input Group’s recommendation once it is made.
Marchese said that the district needs to have a long-range plan so that decisions―both large and small―can be made about the district's school buildings.
“We want to have a plan for what we need to do with the facilities,” Marchese said. “We want to do it right one time so that we don’t have to do it again in five or ten years. I feel like it’s a pivotal moment for Avon Grove. There is real potential for kids to benefit from the decisions that are about to be made. It’s about making sure that there’s a physical space that meets today’s educational standards. Our kids are doing well, but I feel like they could do even more if we had the facilities that they need.”