Dylan Theisen

Athens School District Hopes To Improve Equity And Accessibility With New Buildings

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — For decades, the Athens City School District comprised several elementary schools that each served a distinct sector of the community. But that will soon no longer be the case.

A sign inside of the new Morrison-Gordon Elementary school is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
A sign inside of the new Morrison-Gordon Elementary School, which opens next week to students from pre-K to third grade. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on two state-of-the-art facilities for Athens elementary students. The new Morrison-Gordon and East elementary schools will house students from pre-K through third grade beginning Aug. 25.

The project marks the launch of a district-wide consolidation, which will channel students into fewer yet larger school buildings to ensure the most efficient use of educational resources.

“We went through a process with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission to review all of our facilities, K-12, and then to talk about whether we wanted to make any changes to the structure or format,” Superintendent Tom Gibbs said.

The commission found that the district’s elementary school buildings were so out of date that it would be more cost-efficient to replace them altogether.

What began as an opportunity to bring these buildings up to par with modern standards had become something much bigger.

“There’s just so much great stuff about the buildings,” Gibbs said. “Our students are going to have more space, better air quality, better light quality. But they’re also going to be, you know for some of our kids, it’s just going to be a completely different educational experience.”

For staff and students alike, the renovations offer security improvements, outdoor learning and recreational spaces, and millions of dollars in digital learning technology.

Stephanie More, a kindergarten teacher at East Elementary, unpacks into her new classroom, in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Stephanie More, a kindergarten teacher at East Elementary, unpacks into her new classroom last week. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Both buildings also serve to remedy some of the biggest grievances about the campuses. Most notably, traffic flow for student drop off and pick up has been completely rerouted, and the available parking has drastically expanded.

With all-new facilities, administrators were encouraged by the many opportunities for community improvement. In the areas surrounding these campuses, the district has purchased additional land and rerouted storm drains to prevent flooding and erosion, something Gibbs says has been a “perennial challenge.”

“Now if you look out the backside of the building … an above ground retention pond will get that storm runoff and it will slowly allow the water to dissipate out into the natural wetland and into the land lab so that it causes less environmental damage,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs also said the district is interested in converting the buildings to solar energy when the time is right.

“We actually ran the conduit and put in the breaker boxes in the mechanical rooms, so that when we have an opportunity financially to put solar in, we don’t have to go back out and tear out ceiling tiles and rerun conduit.”

That sense of innovation extends to the interior architecture as well. Gibbs said that accessibility was a core design principle for the buildings.

Microphone sound systems can be found in each classroom to offer better understanding for students hard of hearing. Small breakout rooms feature lighting designed specifically for students with sensory disabilities. And both buildings are entirely mobility friendly, with ramps and elevators at every turn.

Regarding inclusivity, the district wanted to make sure every student felt welcomed in their buildings — even in places as seemingly insignificant as single-user restrooms.

“We have some students who identify as transgender who are not comfortable using group bathrooms, and we wanted to make sure we had an option for them,” Gibbs said.

In fact, equity is the one word Gibbs says defined the district’s plans for these schools.

A classroom is seen at the new East Elementary School, in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
A classroom is seen at the new East Elementary School. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
“They both have the same academic and core program spaces, and those spaces look very similar inside.”

The district is working to address long-held criticisms that Athens children receive unequal education based on the neighborhood they grew up in and the building they attend.

But it’s not just the buildings themselves being addressed.

“I’m hopeful that the impact is less to do about the building and more to do about the new configuration,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs has redrawn the boundaries that determine which students attend which schools.

“When I drew the lines, I literally looked at free and reduced lunch rates and drew the lines in such a way that right now, each building has a lower than 40% free and reduced lunch rate,” he said.

His goal is to ensure both buildings maintain student bodies from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

“There’s research evidence that would demonstrate that all students will actually perform better over time in an environment of that nature,” Gibbs said. “Understanding that it’ll take years to have that impact, we’re hoping that over time we’ll be able to have greater, better educational outcomes for all of our students in the long term.”

The Plains Intermediate School is currently undergoing a similar, $12 million renovation and should be ready for 2022.