Along with the rest of the Cayman Islands community, we at the Compass have great interest in seeing the John Gray High School construction project finished as swiftly as possible. Nothing makes the heart beat slower than an ad infinitum deadline.

Recently we published an editorial lauding the government’s commitment to complete John Gray – finally, while lamenting officials’ simultaneous commitment first to complete mounds of paperwork, including a “business case study,” bureaucratic checklists and other strands of red tape.

Although we still do not understand precisely what the holdup is (after all, similar considerations did not seem to “hold up” the expedited construction of the John Gray gymnasium), John Gray Principal Jon Clark has identified a silver lining in the situation, or at least expressed how officials can spend their time most effectively during the delay before shovels break ground, again, possibly in 2019.

Drawing on lessons learned from the politically infused $110 million-plus Clifton Hunter High School, primarily of the “what not to do” variety, Mr. Clark and other officials have gone back to the proverbial drawing board in an attempt “to get a school exactly how we want it here.”

That means involving staffers, teachers and students in the planning process – and specifically, nixing the “open-plan” layout that was the hallmark of officials (and bane of educators) at Clifton Hunter, and also doing away with the concept of having four separate “academies” at the new John Gray. (Independent schools within a school? Really?)

As any architect, engineer or sculptor will tell you, not everything that looks good on paper actually works in real life. The advantage of getting early feedback and ideas from the eventual users of the new school is that Mr. Clark and others can ascertain needs and pre-empt problems (and fantasies, and delusions of grandeur) before they are set in stone … well, concrete.

After all, it’s much easier, and less expensive, to fix flaws using pencils and erasers than pickaxes and pavers.

By the same token, educators and students have also generated a modest “wish list” for the new school, such as incorporating windows into classrooms so supervisors such as Mr. Clark can “keep an eye on” the inside of classrooms without bursting through doors and interrupting the learning process.

Yes, it seems wise to seek input from the people who will use a facility about what they hope to have in the facility, rather than foisting a building upon them from the top down. And yes, whenever there is a choice between “sizzle” and “substance” (and the topic isn’t automobiles, fashion or fireworks), one should choose substance every time.

We are pleased to see that officials are learning from the mistakes committed during the Clifton Hunter construction – including, presumably, the pitfalls of project management “by committee.” When the “stakeholder input” period has ended and all the paperwork is in proper order, officials must turn the wheel over to a single entity (ideally one experienced and highly accomplished individual) who will steer the project to completion. This individual must be empowered to make minor (and sometimes major) judgments along the way … regardless of external circumstances such as changes in government administration in the interim.

A good guiding principle of the John Gray project is a sentiment expressed by Principal Clark – “It is not going to be about beautiful architecture; it is about function.”

Pop quiz: Ultimately, what is the measure of a successful school?

  • A) The campus receiving awards for architectural innovation, or
  • B) The students earning accolades for academic excellence

If we were to administer that exam to Cayman’s parents, employers and taxpayers, they all would get an “A-plus.” Because the answer is so obvious.

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