Anatomy of a school construction project

Glen Allen High School, Henrico County’s newest school building, opened in September 2010.

(Editor’s note: This article marks the debut of a new section in eSchool News, called Building Excellence, that will provide news and information to help school and district leaders as they plan, design, construct, and equip leading-edge facilities.)

Before a ribbon is sliced by comically oversized scissors, before a brick is laid or an architect is chosen, before voters approve funding for a sparkling new school building, there is only a plan.

The doors to a new school are thrown open by students, parents, and teachers many years after economic and population growth call for more classrooms in a city, town, or county. Researchers and planners use a district’s public relations apparatus to start talks with residents, myriad public forums are held, committees are formed, reports are issued, school boundaries are rearranged, architectural firms are interviewed, and finally, sometimes after five years, construction begins.

Two or three years after the first piece of sod is laid, the school opens.

Even in the nation’s slumping economy, while local and state government budgets are cut to the bone, U.S. schools and colleges are expected to spend $74 billion on renovation and construction in 2012 and $85 billion in 2013, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau projections.

Spending on school construction and renovation has dipped since the economic downturn that began in 2008, and there is some concern among superintendents that school construction funds for projects over the next decade will come with—at the very least—nominal tax increases that must be approved by a majority of voters.

That’s why officials are determined to keep the public involved and to avoid the kind of top-down approach that could alienate neighbors, parents, school board members, and state legislators.

School division officials, local planners, and other decision makers from Henrico County Public Schools, a district of 48,000 students in 71 schools north of Richmond, Va., recently guided eSchool News editors through the construction of Glen Allen High School, the county’s newest school building, which opened in September 2010.

In the process, they shared the lessons they have learned from completing many such construction projects—and the secrets of their success.

“It was really an incredibly complex and participatory process on behalf of a lot of people before it ever even got to the school board,” Henrico County Superintendent Patrick Russo said of the long process to plan and fund Glen Allen High School, now home to 1,100 students and 80 staff members. “People would be surprised by what goes into it.”

Denny Carter

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at