Jul 17, 2017

Leveraging Business/Community Partnerships

By Lisa Johnson, FAIA, LEED AP, is the Education Leader and Principal at DLR Group

Across the nation, we’re seeing an increase in school districts leveraging business and community partnerships to help do more with less, consolidate community resources, and move towards the future. With services that reach student needs around the clock (some on a 24/7 timetable), these partnerships are addressing needs holistically, as well as those of families and communities. 

There are three ways these partnerships are proving to be beneficial: 1) to address basic needs of students and families; 2) to provide real-world opportunities for students to find relevancy in subject matter; 3) and to enhance the local economy. 

As learning environment designers, we can support and enhance our clients’ ability to leverage such partnerships by providing them with facility designs that are flexible, adaptable, and responsive to the needs of the school and community, and provide ways for these community partnerships to thrive.

In Tacoma, Washington, we recently completed an adaptive reuse for McCarver Elementary School. With over 250 community partnerships that support the vision and goals of the school and the district, McCarver has been successful as a facility to offer both education and flexible space for necessary community services. One of these partnerships is with the Tacoma Housing Authority’s Education Project, funded initially, in part, from a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The student body at McCarver has an annual turnover rate of around 115%, attributed very much to transient families who are/were at risk of homelessness. Tacoma Housing Authority offers special housing vouchers which provide housing stability to students and their families. These efforts, combined with the enriched learning opportunities from the faculty and staff at the school, support the holistic needs of the students. 

To reinforce these partnerships, the renovation of McCarver Elementary school involved focused design strategies. The spaces designated for congregating, eating, and learning support a forward-thinking student centered International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum — including components such as fresh food preparation, flexible, shared learning spaces, and a community-focused “McCarver Square.”  McCarver Square, envisioned to be the heart of the school is where many of the larger community events take place. 

A new feature immediately adjacent to McCarver Square is the “Da Vinci Room,” a place for making things, exploring science, and creating art. Its proximity to McCarver Square and the administrative office facilitates ease of zoning for community and partner use.

By adding a garage door to the cafeteria/large group learning space, the school is more adaptable for community use, including an accessible teaching kitchen. The cafeteria and servery supports the food service needs of McCarver's breakfast and lunch service, and also provides sack lunches for three additional schools. In the evening, the “community kitchen” and the space can be open to the public for community gathering and/or classes.  Adjacent, a future “tenant improvement” space with a separate entrance will one day be built out to support community partnership needs.

Another way partnerships are beneficial is when schools work with the local community, providing students with real-world relevancy while also enhancing the local economy. One example of that form includes community college partnerships in a local high school, focused on a specific industry that is economically significant in the community. 

The new Tahoma High School and Regional Learning Center in Maple Valley, Washington, opening in the fall of 2017, will support such partnerships. Tahoma School District’s Vision is for students to become “Future Ready” supporting the preparation of students for college and careers as well as the local economy by helping students develop skillsets that can be used in the area’s industries.

Tahoma School District’s Future Ready initiative reads, “Together, [we] provide the tools and experiences every student needs to create an individual, viable and valued path to lifelong personal success.” It includes eight skills: Complex Thinker, Quality Producer, Self-Directed Learner, Responsible Decision Maker, Effective Communicator, Collaborative Teammate, Community Contributor and Conscientious Worker. 

The District involved over 400 people in the formation of these goals, including students, parents, business leaders, community members, staff, teachers, and administrators, and educational partners.  The various perspectives included insight from those connected to the projected needs of the economic workforce at the local, state, and national level.

The design of the High School and Regional Learning Center supports the Future Ready initiative in many ways, including support for Career and Technical Pathways in the areas of health sciences, manufacturing, information technology, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineer, and Mathematics) and Automotive Tech. The District envisions that the Regional Learning Center will allow business, educational, and community partnerships the flexibility to come into the school, and in turn, enable students to learn at these business and partner locations in the broader community.

The school design was “zoned” to allow the Gymnasium, Performing Arts Center, and Regional Learning Center CTE spaces to be connected in a highly interactive community zone, supported by the Student Commons. In addition, the design team reviewed an approach to the flexibility of the facility within the spaces themselves, highlighting ways to pursue a core and shell approach to flexibility. While the space is built to last 50+ years, the equipment and functions within the spaces will change over time, so whenever possible, that flexibility was intrinsically built into the building.  

As we consider the next steps in community partnerships, it is increasingly apparent that relevancy to real-world needs is crucial in the design of our buildings. Whether it is support of the holistic needs of students, or a need to address a skill or need of the “new economy”, our buildings themselves need to become partners at the table who are agents of change. Gone are the days where a gym, theater, or media center is the only space impacted by after-school use. Programming needs are changing both in school curriculum and “after hours” needs; recognizing that learning is a 24/7 endeavor. 

By embracing the needs of students and their families, the surrounding community, and valuable community partners, schools can position themselves to continue gaining support through impactful service. At the end of the day, if it forces us to re-think the way we create a school, the resulting design will likely be all the better. 


Lisa Johnson, FAIA, LEED AP, is the Education Leader and Principal at DLR Group’s Northwest K-12 practice. She has devoted much of her career to integrated facility design, project management and leadership. Lisa has worked across different building types and practice areas, including the design and management of learning environments for K12 and Higher Education clients, to the design and management of corporate and retail facilities.

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