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Educator and students reading on flexible comfortable yellow stools at white table with house shaped frame, bright graphic mural

Adaptive Reuse Through Collaboration And Community

Ian Kilpatrick

As Dr. Katie Lawson walks the halls of the North Kansas City Schools Early Education Center, she’s greeted by a student with a warm embrace. The student is eager to show Dr. Lawson, the executive director of special programs for North Kansas City Schools, what she’s been working on during small-group with her teacher.

These encounters are not rare for Dr. Lawson, or any of her colleagues. Nor is it irregular to meet a student who wants to share with you their joy for learning; in fact, you can find that just about everywhere you go throughout the North Kansas City Schools Early Education Center.

A space that was once a vacant Hobby Lobby and Price Chopper retail complex is now the catalyst to unlocking the joy of learning for nearly 1,000 North Kansas City preschool students. This was made possible through a collaborative process that prioritized the student and educator experience and the community investment made in early childhood education.

people reading on a brown circular bench with a brown column and green ceiling fixtures in hallway lined with forest graphics

Every time I have the opportunity to visit the early education center, I get to witness memorable moments like the one described above. It never gets old seeing our design brought to life. Getting to see the educators utilize the space for its intended purpose, to elevate the learning experience for their students, is exceptionally gratifying.

We’ve been fortunate that our design work at the center has been recognized and honored with a number of awards. While this is something our team celebrates, and is proud of, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the collaborative relationship we built with North Kansas City Schools and the overwhelming support the early education center received from the surrounding community.

The Perfect Partnership

An open line of communication ultimately made this project successful in working with an aggressive timeline. The professionals at North Kansas City Schools, the Gladstone community leaders, and our team at DLR Group, were in unison in our understanding of what was needed at every juncture in the project.

Every conversation we had turned over new opportunities and new challenges. In adaptively reusing an already existing building, we knew our limitations in the scope of this project. It was our job to turn a space that was never intended to be used as an educational facility into an environment that was inclusive and cultivated opportunities for all learners.

Throughout the entire project we had five guiding principles leading us through every decision. We knew an adequate space would incorporate accessibility and inclusion; it would be flexible and adaptable; it would provide sensory learning and active play; student health and wellness would be paramount; and it would provide support for educators.

Child and educator interact with mural of cartoon forest and animals in carpeted school hallway. Mixed trees, deer, owl, racoon

It was important to the district, and to us, that every group utilizing the education center had a voice in its design. We held 10 stakeholder workshops actively listening to their needs. We spoke with the NKC Schools learners, educators, district leadership, and community members to understand how we could deliver a facility that enhanced their experience at work and at school.

“We believe that every single one of our educators had a voice in the project,” says Dr. Lawson.

Perhaps our most unique workshop setting was participating in “pre-k for a day” on several occasions. We were able to immerse ourselves in the day-to-day excitement and challenges that the students and educators face. This was especially important to us since this facility would be suited to all students, including the nearly 400 special education learners and the teachers that support them.

The early education center was built with every interest group in mind. However, it was extremely important to us that we served the needs of our most impressionable stakeholder group, the students.

From there, we combined our design prowess with the insights and feedback we garnered during our workshops, never straying from our five guiding principles. All the while, we kept an open line of communication with everyone involved in the project.

A Community That Champions for Learning

With the nature of adaptive reuse, the NKC Schools Early Education Center is twofold in serving the school district, as well as the community of Gladstone. In the most literal sense, a project like this takes a village. In our case, we saw complete and total buy-in from the school district, the community, and the state.

Henderson has worked in the district for 10 years and has been involved in governmental relations in the real estate industry for over 30 years. She recognizes the importance of mutual assistance between the community and the school district.

“The best districts are the ones that work very closely with their communities,” says Henderson. “They work closely with business leaders, civic leaders, community leaders, parents, every group, they make sure they are represented. They ensure the school district is reflecting their community and representing their community.”

Successful bond referendums are made largely in part, if not entirely, by the community’s understanding of the need the bond will serve. For North Kansas City Schools, district leaders have taken the bond process and really turned it into a formality. They ensure that all stakeholders in their community, not just the parents of students, are involved throughout the process.

It’s been 30 years since North Kansas City Schools had a bond that didn’t garner support at the ballot box. Since 2001, they’ve passed seven bonds, delivering $590 million in support of bettering the educational experience in their communities.

“We believe the need to be communicating with everyone in the community is really important because they’re not in and out of our schools on a daily basis,” says Henderson. “We need to keep them close to our district and make sure they’re informed and that they feel like they have a voice. They’re very important to us.”

Prior to a bond vote, leaders from the North Kansas City Schools district will make over 100 presentations across their communities to bring awareness. Their efforts have led to numerous bond referendums being passed, including the $155 million ticket in June of 2020 which supported the early education center among other district initiatives. That bond passed with nearly 80% approval in a community where most of the residents do not have school-aged kids. This is a testament to the commitment of the district and the community, working together.

The long-term effect the early education center has on students will not be realized for quite some time. There will be plenty of time to examine test scores, connect data points, and study graduation rates. For now, it’s gratifying to see the children who attend the school unknowingly reaping the benefits of a community that has lifted them up and invested in their future.

Read more from our conversation with Senator Lauren Arthur here.

Ian Kilpatrick
Connect with me to start a conversation ➔ Ian Kilpatrick, Design Leader


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