The redesign of the new John Gray High School is a chance to “do it right,” according to the school’s principal Jon Clark.
Government revealed this month that it is going through an extended planning process on the long-delayed school project and does not expect to have shovels in the ground until 2019.
The announcement, a decade after work first began on the school and five years since construction halted as funds ran out, sparked criticism in some quarters.
But Mr. Clark sees opportunity emerging from what has been an otherwise frustrating experience.
“We have got a chance to get a school exactly how we want it here,” said Mr. Clark, who along with his senior staff, is intimately involved with the planning process.
He said it did not make sense to continue with the original design – which mirrors that of Clifton Hunter – based on concerns from teachers about the controversial open-plan layout at that high school.
“The biggest feedback from teachers is they want defined teaching spaces; they didn’t want open-plan classrooms,” he said.
The initial designs also involved four separate academies, essentially independent mini-schools on the same campus.
That model is also likely to disappear, partially based on input from Mr. Clark and his school leadership team.
Three of the school buildings have already been built off the old plan, and project leaders are scoping out design options that seek to connect those buildings in one school.
“This is one of the most complex projects that I have worked on,” said senior project manager Jonathan Matthews, who arrived in Cayman in 2016, having worked on numerous school projects in the U.K.
He said restarting a half-built school with a new design was rife with complications that needed to be properly assessed.
From the viability of mechanical, engineering and plumbing systems, installed but never used, at the existing site, to the feasibility of completing the school to new design specifications, the implications of the project delays are many and varied.
“It is a much bigger project because it is not going to be completed as originally designed,” he added.
For Mr. Clark, simply going ahead with the original design, in light of the feedback about Clifton Hunter, would be ill-advised.
“I can see why they went in that direction at the time but we have seen the response to that and they’ve walked it back to a degree by adding partitions to the open-plan classrooms,” he said. “It is still a beautiful facility but, for me, we have a chance here to build a school exactly how we want it.”
Evidence of any link between specific school design and academic achievement is limited, both men acknowledge.
Mr. Matthews said the key element was ensuring significant input from those who would use it.
Even the students are having a say in what they want from the new school in a series of surveys. Student lockers are one feature they would like in the new school.
According to Mr. Matthews, this type of community involvement is critical to the success of the project.
“We did some research on the connections between design and educational performance and asked, does a certain type of design improve education around the world? The evidence came back and said that actually the building on its own isn’t going to improve performance.
“It is the teaching and learning, the curriculum and the leadership of the school that has the most impact. But if the leadership team, the staff and the students are involved in the journey of designing and planning the school that they will be using, then that can have a real impact,” he said.
As principal, Mr. Clark believes the correct design can mean a more efficient school, while input from teachers and students serves to help tailor the end product to their requirements.
He said simple design features like windows in classrooms would allow him to quickly monitor what is going on in the school without disrupting teaching. Well-designed communal areas and open spaces can make student behavior easier to manage. Sectioning classrooms into blocks based on subject areas can help teachers share resources and expertise.
“It is not going to be about beautiful architecture; it is about function. It is about looking at the curriculum now and what it will look like in the future and building a school to match,” he added.
The project team was able to expedite the planning process for the gym because it was largely built to the original designs.
Completing the school is more complex, and per legal requirements for infrastructure projects over $10 million, the project is required to go through a “business case” analysis.
That process began with a Strategic Outline Case, where 12 possible design options were reviewed.
Those options have now been reduced to five and will be honed through the Outline Business Case, which will analyze input from education officials, teachers and students and examine successful school construction elsewhere, to make recommendations for the final design.
The next phase involves procurement of a contractor, planning applications and a final budget analysis before work can begin.
Though he acknowledges frustration at the longer lead time, Mr. Matthews believes following this process will ultimately mean the project gets completed on budget and on schedule and delivers a school that the Cayman Islands can be proud of.
“All of this is important to get right before you start construction,” he said. “If you rush the start, it is going to end up costing more and taking longer. If you have the design sorted and it fits with what the school leaders are telling you they want, the contractor knows exactly what they are doing before they start. That is when a project like this goes well and comes in on budget and on time.”
Completing the new John Gray site is just one project being examined through the business-case process.
Repurposing the old school buildings to expand both the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre and the University College of the Cayman Islands is also part of the plan.
The Department of Education Services will also move to the site.
The current CIFEC buildings will be demolished to make way for the playing fields for the new school.
The switch will mean a net growth in facilities for CIFEC and UCCI and offers an opportunity to increase technical and vocational course offerings at both facilities, Mr. Matthews said.
“This is the hidden gem. The buildings are actually in decent condition,” he said. “If we can give them a new lease of life and make sure they are equipped for the enhanced curriculum that CIFEC and UCCI will be offering, there is great opportunity here to really improve things across the board.”