Unofficial Minutes: Meeting of the Steering Committee of the Master Planning Design Process on 06/15/2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.

Written by:  Kate Coyne and David Stokes

Committee members:  John Portz, Co-chair; Liz Yusem, Co-chair; Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director, Business Services; Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council Vice-President; Michael Dattoli, Town Councilor; Steve Magoon, Assistant Town Manager and Director, Community Development and Planning; Deb King, WEA President and WMS teacher; Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator; Dr. Kimo Carter, WMS Principal; Alyson Morales; Pete Caron; Mike Shepard; Elaina Griffith; Chris Lowry.

Audience members:  Lisa Feltner, Town Councilor; Kate Coyne, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; Elodia Thomas; Christie Fisher, WPS Administrative Assistant; and one other community member. 

Introductions

Dr. Michael van Hamel, one of the two primary SMMA folks who will be working with Watertown on this project over the summer, started off by introducing himself, his background, and his connections to education and educational architecture.  Then, one by one, all the other people in the room, including the audience members, were invited to introduce themselves and their connection to the project.

Overview of the Project

Michael then introduced the Project, via a slide show, that presented the ideas and discussions that SMMA had with the Educational Leadership team for the Project during 2 sessions that were held previous to the Steering Committee meeting.  He described the various modalities of 21st Century learning, which are important concepts to support through design and redesign.  He talked about the need for “flexible spaces” and “movable, flexible furniture” in those spaces, in order to accommodate multiple modalities within the same space.  He highlighted that SMMA embraces Responsible Design, and the concept of the Building as a Teacher.  He touched on the integration of STEAM (sometimes referred to as STREAM, where the “R” stands for Research) into the building, sometimes in less traditional spaces, like playgrounds.  He said that SMMA would certainly be able to reclaim space in the buildings.  He identified the need for professional workspaces for teachers, including teaming and collaboration spaces.  He spoke about SMMA’s review of the 2014 WPS school buildings physical study (and, in particular, the comparison of each classroom in each school against the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s guidelines), which was made easier by the high quality of the 2014 report.  He noted that scheduling and culture play significant roles in this process and the planning of space.  He concluded with some next steps around more research, including the land surveyor’s office; a look at the “money component” and “strands of students”; a continuing to do their due diligence; and a collection of additional details from teachers and administrators, with updates about the details of how space is configured and used today.

Then, the remaining time was used as a Q&A period.  During this Q&A, Michael reassured the assembly that the teachers and administrators of WPS are already doing 21st Century teaching – just without the space(s) to support them; they already have embraced the concepts – which makes SMMA’s job significantly easier.  The learning spaces seem to be the biggest limits and constraints, and even so, the teachers are still able to teach using the multiple learning modalities he presented in the slide show.  Michael suggested that Quincy HS might be a good model of where WPS might be going, although he acknowledged that it was new construction, so it might not match up exactly.  He agreed to do some homework for the next meeting, researching a better model for Watertown’s project.

In answer to other questions, Michael said that SMMA tries to be real with the numbers of students housed in each building, that they will use the existing enrollment studies that have been done recently, while looking to national and regional trends.  He pointed out that there has been no pen to paper yet, in terms of design – everything is still “on the table” (new construction, renovations, “phased” approach); SMMA is still in the information gathering phase.

Jean was able to verify that Universal PreK is being considered as part of the long look-ahead; Vinnie pointed out that Minuteman is a set of important decisions at the other end of the student spectrum, which also need to be addressed.

Commentary

David Stokes

At first blush, Dr. van Hamel presented lots of information, all of which is relevant and important to the project.  I liked that he could show us work that had already been started (and/or completed) to-date.

However, as others have already commented in other venues, it was difficult to see the slide show (due to lighting and projection), the room was uncomfortably warm (but the air conditioner made it too difficult to hear), and we were configured to sit in a 20th Century learning environment to talk about 21st Century learning at WPS.  Dialogue from audience to speaker, and vice versa, was fine, but it was difficult to talk to each other.  I hope that the Steering Committee members have some opportunities at various Committee meetings to experience first-hand some of the 21st Century learning modalities that are critical to understanding a supportive, responsible design.

My bigger problem was with the project schedule.  In other project meetings, during a “kickoff”, in addition to reviewing the scope and budget, the schedule is presented.  And, while there was a project schedule presented here, too, it did not contain the sort of detailed, chunked tasks that need to be completed on the journey from kickoff to project completion, with dependencies and resources and other details.  I did not have a good sense of the flow of the Steering Committee meetings, what tasks would happen between meetings with which resources, or what sort of intermediate deliverables would come and when.  What I was looking for was “flow”, the ability to get a sense of the project’s movement through time and space, how they will get to the final design by the end of August.

I applaud Pete Caron for suggesting tours of the buildings, especially for those members who are not as familiar with buildings outside of the ones that their children attend – including the dark corners and hidden closets and secret alcoves.  Even though I am not a member of the Steering Committee, I would certainly like to be offered the opportunity to join them in that excursion!

Finally, with respect to some required schedule juggling at the end of the meeting, the conversation did not appear to be completely well-informed.  For example, does it make sense to show the movie “Most Likely to Succeed” (Thank you, Watertown Community Foundation!) the day after the first Community Forum that is part of this project?  I’m sure that was just a timing and coordination issue, but it did not even seem to be factored into the conversation.  Perhaps I was simply unable to hear through the chaos of multiple conversations.

It was a good start.  Having slides in hand would have been preferred (or at least the electronic version, to refer to).  I also expected that, with a compressed schedule, that every minute would be devoted to working – doing something to keep moving forward.  Both the first meeting of the Steering Committee and the first of only three Community Forums seem to be oriented toward only providing information to the audience.

If someone reading this message is able to include some real work with the Community, while you have them in the WHS Auditorium, then 33% of the time you have with the Community over the Summer will not feel like it was wasted.  And, while I’m wishing on a star, perhaps some creative technology (like Chromebooks?) could be used to help gather opinions or other information, or to teach us something in a 21st Century learning modality – even if the space doesn’t lend itself well to that sort of exercise (it might help the Community to see and feel the difficulty and challenges that WPS teachers have each day…).