‘Operation Doors’ at Discovery Elementary has begun, addressing school safety concerns
A little more than a year ago, parents and staff at Discovery Elementary School called for a fix to a potential safety hazard: the school’s lack of interior doors.
District officials agreed an upgrade was needed and got to work on a plan to install doors on classrooms at the school, which was built in 1981 in the “open-concept” design. Construction began on June 26, after classes had ended for the year.
Funding for the project — $332,303 plus tax — will come from the district’s capital budget with money from a past land sale.
Installation of interior doors will enhance safety and create a better learning environment, district officials say. The district is on track to complete the project by Sept. 5, the first day of the 2023-24 school year, according to Patrick Gillespie, capital facilities director.
A long-standing problem
Concern about the school’s design has been ongoing for a couple of decades, according to longtime teachers.
In April 2022, special education teacher Wendy Fein sent an email to top district officials complaining about staff’s lack of ability to lock classrooms if there were an intruder.
Fein added that the open-concept design, popular as an educational trend in the 1970s, created a noisy, distracting atmosphere that made it difficult for students to concentrate and for teachers to teach.
“It is time to prioritize doors on classrooms at Discovery for both safety and educational reasons,” Fein wrote. “I hope it does not take a tragedy to make this happen.”
Then came Uvalde. On May 24, 2022, a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Southeast Texas. That spurred Fein to write another, more strongly worded email. The district responded by hosting a forum on June 8, 2022.
At the forum, complaints about safety and the learning environment were echoed by other teachers and parents.
“Thank you for having this meeting tonight, so that we can express what our frustration is as teachers in the day-to-day operation of the learning environment. From a learning perspective, doors are really critical, and I hope our district administrators hear that,” said teacher Ron Witter, eliciting applause.
Like Fein, Witter said the doors had been a perennial topic of conversation for the nearly 20 years he’d been teaching there.
District makes doors a priority
Adding doors to Discovery Elementary has been on the district’s capital projects to-do list for some time. It’s the only remaining open-concept school in Peninsula School District, since the 2003 renovation of Purdy Elementary. But when a bond — primarily to build four new elementary schools — passed in 2019, Discovery’s doors didn’t make the cut.
At the June 2022 forum, no one in the district’s administration disputed that it was time for the open-concept design to go. And in December, the district announced it was moving forward with the project.
“Recent tragic events in our country have understandably raised awareness and fears in our community, and Discovery is the only school in the district without doors,” Assistant Superintendent John Hellwich said. “We felt it was necessary to prioritize this project.”
Gillespie at the time didn’t promise a quick fix, citing steps in the process including a final design compatible with the existing structure, permitting and selecting a contractor by soliciting bids. He also said supply chain issues, which persisted in the wake of the pandemic, could slow the project.
The district, however, was able to keep to its projected schedule and start work at the end of the school year.
Contractors are currently working on the school’s HVAC and electrical systems so they’re compatible with the new doors, and on procuring items needed to install the doors.
“PSD’s plans are to have the doors installed before the first day of school,” said spokeswoman Danielle Chastaine.