Two suburban school districts finalize facilities master plans during uncertain times

This is the latest story in FreshWater Cleveland's series First Suburbs: A Closer Look, focusing on the suburbs surrounding Cleveland. Built mostly before the 1960s, these “first” suburbs face challenges ranging from urban sprawl to disinvestment. But shrinking news coverage reports mostly on crime. This series instead will look at the unheralded people and innovative programs that are making a difference, through a solutions-based journalism lens.

Officials in almost every U.S. school district are currently debating the details of a safe return to the classroom this fall among fears of coronavirus surges and community spread of the virus.

<span class="content-image-text">Lakewood High School</span>Lakewood High SchoolLocally, some school districts have students returning to the classrooms for the 2020-2021 school year, while other districts are creating distance learning programs—at least in the beginning of the term—and yet others are developing hybrid models that blend classroom and distance learning.

Even before COVID-19 hit Ohio, many area school districts began consolidating their facilities while simultaneously constructing new, updated schools to meet 21st Century needs.

Some inner-ring suburban school districts have begun to also repurpose existing academic buildings for use as meeting spaces for the larger community.

Two districts that are making these types of changes are the Lakewood and Shaker Heights—accommodating shrinking enrollments and a need to update their outdated structures.

Lakewood City School District, for instance, is three years removed from completion of a large-scale facilities master plan, formally adopted by the district’s board of education in 2003.

A 2017 dedication of new athletic facilities at Lakewood High School—which includes a public fitness space and indoor track—represented the final piece of a transformative 12-year project for the western Cleveland suburb.

A district-wide reconfiguration comprised the crux of Lakewood’s $232 million facilities initiative. Over the course of construction, Lakewood downsized from 10 elementary schools to seven—tearing down and re-building five schools from the ground up while completely converting two middle schools into grade schools.

The original three middle schools were replaced by two new middle schools that opened in 2007.

Interestingly enough, the front of the new Garfield Middle School is the original facade from the original Garfield Elementary School—built at the turn of the 19th century.

A football field was added at Garfield.

Lakewood High School received a mix-ed use makeover sporting a spanking-new academic wing, performing arts space, and cafeteria, as well as the public fitness facility.

The high school’s modernization—alongside the rebuilding of Grant, Lincoln, and Roosevelt Elementary Schools—signified the master plan’s third and final phase, notes Christine Gordillo, communications and PR coordinator for Lakewood schools.

“The plan represented the commitment of the community to our city’s youth,” says Gordillo. “Lakewood has always shown strong support for its schools, as evidenced by successful passages of bond issues and operating levies.”

Lakewood’s most recent bond levy passed with 72% approval,” Gordillo says. “We built these schools so our communities could take advantage of them as well.”

<span class="content-image-text">Lakewood School Board member Ed Favre</span>Lakewood School Board member Ed FavreA much-needed overhaul

Lakewood schools passed permanent improvement levies—as well as three bond issues totaling $173.7 million—to fund its facilities initiative. The state of Ohio contributed 31% of the total cost.

Ed Favre, who joined the Lakewood school board in 1997, says the idea for a district overhaul came in 2001 when considering an aging facility roster that in some cases dated back to the 1890s.

Dropping enrollment that coincides with an overall population decline, further motivated officials to push for wholesale planning rather than a piecemeal construction approach.

“None of our elementary schools had classrooms that complied with state standards,” Favre explains. “Our first buildings that opened up in 2007 were state-of-the-art; then we finished up with the high school a few years ago.”

Additional improvements included LED lighting and the district was set to provide young learners with Chromebooks powered by on-site wi-fi, COVID-19 temporarily disrupted those plans.

“The whole environment is much better,” says Favre. “If you were to talk to any teacher that’s been in the district for 20 years, they’d be flabbergasted at the thought of going back to what they had.”

A neighborhood ‘showcase’

Shaker Heights Schools is in the final stage of a capital project plan that continued this spring and summer during Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s state closure order.

The project, funded by a $30 million bond issue approved by voters in 2017, addresses pressing needs at all eight facilities and ensures the viability of school buildings for years to come, says Scott Stephens, district director of communications and engagement.

Though not necessarily sexy, infrastructure upgrades such as waterproofing and new roofing are vital to the safety, warmth, and comfort of the district’s students.

<span class="content-image-text">Lincoln Elementary School</span>Lincoln Elementary School“We’ve addressed some deferred maintenance from over the years,” admits Stephens. “Every one of our schools in all of our neighborhoods will benefit from this bond money.”

A bit more headline-grabbing is the return of Fernway Elementary School, which closed in 2018 after suffering extensive fire damage.

The rebuilt school—a separate project from the district capital plan—boasts brand new HVAC, a media center/maker space, and a contemporary playground.

Stephens says Fernway can be a “showcase” for a neighborhood in need of modern facilities. What’s more, he says it’s a flexible space that can be harnessed for summer programs, professional development, and neighborhood events.

“People can use the space even if they don’t have kids in the community,” says Stephens. “It’s a very nice asset for the neighborhood.”

Additionally, Stephens says Fernway serves as a model example of future possibilities in all the schools.

“Even more than its practical uses, the building allows us to imagine how a modern school building can function,” says Stephens. “It’s an exemplar in a way that hopefully will continue discussions about long-term facilities plans in our district.”

Master plan, interrupted

Whether students get the chance to enjoy the changes to school facilities is determinant on Ohio’s standing in the coronavirus pandemic, officials say.

Both Shaker and Lakewood have released their 2020-2021 reopening plans that account for variances in the state’s coronavirus status.

Shaker has implemented a hybrid learning curriculum that combines in-person and online instruction. Students also have the option to go fully online through the Shaker Virtual Academy.

Meanwhile, Lakewood is currently creating four learning models—ranging from in-person to completely remote—based on the state’s public health advisory system risk levels.

Before COVID-19, a myriad of organizations rented out space at many of Lakewood’s school buildings. Although the virus has restricted use of the refurbished high school as an event space for the community, it can still be a draw for families wanting the best for their children, says Gordillo.

“It was hard work to go through a plan such as ours,” she says. “It’s brought a lot of civic pride and made Lakewood a desirable place for people to move.”

The series is made possible through the support of Citizens Bank, the First Suburbs Consortium, and the First Ring Schools Collaborative.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.