The only true constant is change. Over time, things naturally change.
And if we don’t change, we’ll be left behind.
Education should be at the forefront of change. Not only should education react to change, it should anticipate it.
Society changes. Vocations change. Educators change. Students change. Needs change.
But, for the most part, structures – buildings – don’t change.
The Eastern Lebanon County School District (ELCO) is exploring the feasibility of a $30 million renovation project that would change the face of ELCO High School. Although still very much in the exploratory phase, the project would be designed more to address the changing needs of education than wear and tear on the building.
It’s been 30 years since ELCO High School has been treated to a major renovation project.
“For all of us, needs have changed,” said Julia Vicente, who’s been ELCO’s superintendent for four years. “Just think about technology and the way it has affected our society. Some of our current technologies weren’t even being used in 1991. The value of collaboration, of working together, is different now than it was in 1991.”
“Environment is critical in a student’s education,” Vicente added. “We have to create spaces to collaborate. We can really create some important dynamics.”
In Jan., the ELCO school board directors voted 7-2 to approve preliminary plans for the project, directing an architect and the administration to proceed with the design phase. The $30 million project would raise taxes in the ELCO school district on average of about $12 per month per household, an increase that would go into effect for the 2022-23 school year, Vicente said.
Some ELCO taxpayers have expressed concerns about the wisdom of raising taxes in an economy still being negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis. But as long as there have been schools and school boards, there has also been conflict surrounding raising taxes.
Two years ago, ELCO completed an energy-saving project that replaced the HVAC system and upgraded the lighting at ELCO High School. The current proposed project would be much larger in scale and it’s something the board directors have been discussing for five years.
“The maximum it can go is $30 million,” said Vicente. “But I’m hoping it will be less than that. About $25 million will be for construction, but it’s still in the design phase. We met with every single department in the high school and talked about their learning environments and how we can improve their areas.”
“We’ve been having preliminary discussions, but there would be some impact on taxes,” Vicente added. “The last thing we want to do is enter into a project that will cripple us from doing future work. How much taxes will go up will all depend on how much the project costs.”
If, or when, it comes to fruition, the proposed project would refurbish, reconfigure, redesign, or even create new learning environments for technology education, science labs, industrial arts like wood and metal shops, the fine arts, and a proposed emergency medical technician program. Also being considered are improvements to the traffic flow around the high school and some athletic upgrades.
“When you think about where we’re at in 2021, we have a responsibility to graduate students who are community ready,” said Vicente. “We owe that to the community. We need to make sure the skills we are teaching our students match the needs in our community.”
“We just have to evolve with workforce changes,” Vicente continued. “The music program continues to grow, and we’re out of space. That’s one of the areas that needs to be redesigned. We continue to support those kinds of expanded opportunities for our kids.”
When the architectural designs for the proposed project are finalized, they will be presented to the school board for consideration. The ELCO school board is expected to place the final touches on the school district’s budget for the 2021-22 school year in the coming months.
Should the $30 million renovation project be approved, it would then go out for bid, by the end of this year or early 2022. Depending on when the proposed project would begin, construction would take about three years to complete, and it could be finished as early as the 2024-25 school year.
Vicente said that, due to the still unknown specifics of the project, she did not know how it would affect the everyday learning experience for students during construction.
“The question becomes, ‘How do we build a school for the next 30 years?’” said Vicente. “This renovation project is about instructional areas. Churches used to be the hubs of communities. But over time, schools have become the new hubs of communities.”
The current ELCO High School building opened on Sept. 5, 1962. Over the last almost 50 years, improvements and upgrades have been performed, but, in many ways, the building is still very much the same as it was when it was first built.
“It’s been 30 years since a major renovation project was undertaken at the high school,” said Vicente. “We’ve been good stewards of the building, but it is time. The final plans have not been approved yet. What we’re concerned with is how to best prepare students to be community ready.”
Of the six local public school districts, ELCO is located in one of the most rural areas of Lebanon County. Certainly, the interests and pursuits of the ELCO student population reflect where they’re from.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during the majority of the current school year, many ELCO High School’s students have been engaged in a hybrid combination of virtual and in-person learning.
“Superintendents take the final decisions they make very seriously,” said Vicente, a 54-year-old resident of Myerstown. “Financial responsibility to our community, our board believes in that and our administration believes in that. But we want to present the best opportunities to our kids. We are mindful of money. But we are student-driven, while also being true to our community values.”
Anything worth having comes at the price of change.
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