Holistic Site Design Accounts for Increasing Focus on Safety, Accessibility in Schools

by | Nov 17, 2016 | Development, News

K-12 buildings and facilities play a vital role in the everyday lives of children throughout the U.S. In recent decades, school districts and their administrations have increasingly focused on updating and renovating their facilities to ensure children are able to learn in an environment that promotes health, safety and inclusion.

school playground rendering by Shafer, Kline & Warren

A rendering of the proposed playground for McMillan Elementary school features integrated ADA accessible ramps, direct access to the playground from the classrooms, ornamental gardens and artificial turf.

As the needs and demands of these facilities continue to evolve, McClure Engineering Company’s engineers are helping to design sites, entryways, and school environments to support the safety and security of students in our communities.

“For building entry sequences, each administration and school is unique,” said Matt Kist, P.E., team leader of development services. “For all of them the goal is the same – to provide a barrier and a screening process prior to guest entry into the building – but how they want that process to function varies.”

Up until the late 1990s, entry sequences were not a common concern for schools, but now when schools obtain funding to update or renovate buildings, this is often one of the areas addressed. When designing entryways for some schools, this means creating a reception area that guests immediately flow into before being admitted into the rest of the building, while others add an intermediate set of doors where the visitor waits to be admitted.

Playgrounds are another area of schools where security and access are being reconsidered. In the past, there were often some public sidewalks leading onto the school playgrounds to provide community access; however, most schools are moving away from this practice and adding locked gates to control entrance onto a school’s outdoor spaces.

“The schools hire us to solve problems and ultimately improve how they serve their community. At the end of the day, we help them understand how we accounted for the schools’ use by students, parents and administrators when designing a holistic solution to make the school better, safer and easier.”

For one of his current projects, Kist is working with the Mexico Public Schools #59 in Missouri to move their early childhood center into McMillan Elementary school as part of that school’s expansion.

“For a pre-kindergarten center, there are some unique concerns and site considerations,” said Kist. “The pre-K center will have its own parking lot, entrance and sequencing, so parents can park and walk their children into the building.”

Because each parent walks their child into school, there must be enough parking for every student-parent pair with direct access to the sidewalk, so they can safely enter the building.

“We use extra caution in the site design for students this young to ensure they can walk into school safely with their parents, along sidewalk and parking lots that aren’t too steep,” said Kist. “We also consider using a different approach to curbs or eliminate curbs to reduce the chance of kids tripping and falling. The entire site design is focused around its use by 4 and 5 year olds and how different the level of coordination and needs of these young kids are.”

For Moberly, Missouri, as well as the Mexico Public Schools, another concern is accessibility. While these schools have an accessible entrance that meets American with Disability Act (ADA) guidelines, these entrances are often around the side or back of the building. With both of these school renovation projects, access for students with disabilities is being integrated into the front entryway.

“School buildings are typically built up in the air, so access is an issue,” said Kist. “Typically, these entrances have steps and a landing, so we look at adding a ramp with handrails or a switch-back ramp to bring students up to the entrance landing. It’s important to adjust these entryways so students with disabilities can enter the front of the school with their friends. Our approach to these entrances establishes the welcoming and inclusive environment that is so important to our schools and communities.”

The final safety trend that Kist has seen since the 2012 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, is the creation of a storm shelter for the students. While these might not be Federal Emergency Management Agency-rated (FEMA) shelters, they are often the near equivalent. In many cases an indoor multipurpose room or classroom is designed with additional wall thickness and structurally thickened glass to protect students in case of a severe weather event.

“When working on these projects, I like that you have to design schools and their sites from many different angles – you have the students, the administrators, the teachers, the parents and the general public to account for,” said Kist. “The schools hire us to solve problems and ultimately improve how they serve their community. At the end of the day, we help them understand how we accounted for the schools’ use by students, parents and administrators when designing a holistic solution to make the school better, safer and easier.”