netcurmudgeon (netcurmudgeon) wrote,

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Calling all experts

I have been thinking lately about what it means to be an expert, and the trouble experts can get into when their expert knowledge is not leavened with enough practical experience. Two things I experienced recently have given me food for thought. Both come from school construction.

The first happened about a month ago at the offices of the architectural firm that is contracted to design one of Hartford's new magnet schools. This school is supposed to be "technology focused". The assembled group was discussing furniture for the school's laboratory classrooms. The labs have two parts — a section laid out like a traditional classroom, and a section laid out like a laboratory, with counters on three sides. That put the demonstration table pretty much dead-center in the room. The teaching wall (with whiteboards and projectors it's not a chalkboard any more). Is at the opposite end of the room from the lab part. The room goes: teaching wall, student desks, demo table, lab area.

DW, from the District's curriculum technology department, was extolling the virtues of equipping the classroom with swivel chairs to enable a more dynamic learning environment. Students could follow the instructor as she moved from teaching wall to demo table without having to get up and turn their chairs around — wasting instructional time with the disruption.

The Principal of the school flatly vetoed the idea. They had swivel chairs in the school when it opened (in temporary quarters) last year. Over the summer they got rid of all of them. The students had been driving the teachers to distraction by constantly swinging back and forth. squeak! squeak! squeak! squeak!

DW's a sharp person. She's had a lot of good ideas for other school projects. Her idea sounded great in committee, with an excellent theoretical foundation, and just died in the face of the practical experience of managing a classroom with twenty antsy teenagers.

The second happened today. I was out at Naylor Elementary School meeting with PD, one of the project managers, to talk about moving things around in the main network room. One of the features of the addition to the school is a three-story atrium. One side (which abuts the original building) has brightly colored house facades. On the upper floors the other three sides are walkways. On the third floor the walkways are glassed-in. On the second floor, the walkways ringing the atrium are open. There's a waist-high wall between you and open space. The wall undulates up and down in a way that tells you that the architect thought that this was the crown jewel of the new Naylor school.

As we came up the stairs to the second floor this afternoon I immediately saw that the entire opening (on all three sides, and the upper part of the stairway too) were closed in with bright blue heavy poly mesh. The mesh was securely anchored top and bottom with pieces of steel channel screwed into the underlying structure. I asked PD if there had been a problem, or if this was in anticipation of a problem. He told me that a couple of weeks ago a special needs kid (one with behavior problems and a full-time aide) came bounding up the stairs, took a running leap and landed right on top of the wall, teetering on the brink of a 30' drop to the ground floor below. Thus it was proved, the opening into the atrium needed to be closed.

I wondered about the second floor being open to the atrium on my first walkthrough in July. Now that experience has shown it to be a danger, it will be glassed in. This will not be cheap. Fire code requires that the glass have sprinkler coverage on both sides. This means maybe a dozen more fire sprinklers to cover the atrium side of the to-be-installed glass. The sprinkler water supply pipes are designed to deliver the amount of water needed by the sprinklers in the area; by adding a dozen new heads, they have to install a new supply pipe all the way from the sprinkler main on the ground floor. As I said, it will not be cheap to mitigate this hazard.

The architect who designed this is a degreed and licensed professional. The firms that do school design tend to do a lot of school design projects (so much so that I joke about "the usual suspects" because their names turn up so often on projects). They should know better. The Office of School Facilities at the Conn. State Department of Education, that reviewed and approved the plans, should have known better. And Hartford's own building officials and Fire Marshall, who reviewed the plans and granted the school's Certificate of Occupancy should have known better. All it took was one energetic elementary school student to show as bogus all of this expert wisdom that deemed having a four-foot-high wall guarding a 30' drop to be acceptable around four hundred rambunctious kids.

To me, these are humbling cautionary tales. They tell me that no matter how much I think I know about a situation, I cannot assume that my experience makes me right. Observe, Learn, Adapt. Observe, learn, adapt, lest school children make a monkey of you.

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