Case Studies

Heather Bock – Denver Public Schools

Construction director puts the cool in school

While Colorado may be known for its snowy peaks, the state also experiences days of sweltering heat.

At Denver Public Schools, classes are cancelled when indoor temperatures exceed a stuffy 85 degrees. During the second week of the 2022-23 school year, students were released early three days because of heat.  The issue isn’t just the weather, says Heather Bock, the director of construction for the district. It’s that some schools don’t have air conditioning.

“Extreme heat has a significant impact on learning and attention span,” she says. “It’s very uncomfortable. I’ve seen my kids come home exhausted from being overheated all day.”

The largest district in Colorado with over 90,000 students, Denver Public Schools is comprised of 216 facilities, 152 of which are schools. As of 2020, 55 of those schools didn’t have air conditioning.

That year, voters approved a $795 million bond consisting of several projects, including installing air conditioning systems in 24 schools. Bock expects the other 31 schools to receive funding for air conditioning through capital planning.

“We want to make sure the district is making the right choices for students and that they’re being taken care of when they’re here at school,” she says.

Equitable approach

According to Bock, the district used equity and heat indexes to select the 24 schools covered by the bond out of the 55 with no air conditioning. The district has a diverse population, as well as many students who are unhoused—circumstances that were taken into consideration.

The equity index also considered the number of students in each school receiving free or reduced lunch and the number of English language learners. This index was then combined with a heat index for each school to determine where the need was greatest.

“Our goal at DPS is providing safe, comfortable learning environments for all students regardless of race, gender or economic status,” Bock says.

Within the first year of the bond, she and her team installed air conditioning systems in six of the schools. As of December 2022, 15 schools had been completed and Bock planned to start work on the remaining nine in summer 2023.

The process has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain shortages and delays, as well as by the age of the schools. Some of the buildings in the district were built in the early 1900s and designed with passive cooling, which uses vents to naturally move hot air out and cool air in.

“It can be difficult to install modern systems in older buildings because they often lack the space for ducts and equipment in the ceilings, but it’s important to honor the history of the building,” Bock says.

Making the old new

Some of the older schools are designated as historical sites, so the district’s planning department needs to work with Denver’s landmark society before Bock and her team can start construction.

She says maintaining the school’s exterior look is often most important, but she and her team also ensure nothing looks out of place inside. The planning, design and construction team, which she’s one of the managers of, works with the architect to hide piping and duct work by matching them to the building’s interior style.

Bock and her team have also been busy making improvements to Montbello High School, which is the largest project in the 2020 bond. Phase one of the $130 million project, which included demolishing part of the building and renovating another part to accommodate 1,200 students, was finished in summer 2022.

They’re now rebuilding the area that had been demolished to further expand and modernize the school. The athletic facilities and performance spaces will be retained and expanded, and the project will be finished by fall 2024.

“We want to create a comprehensive high school in that part of the city,” Bock says. “We’re giving students the best in academics, athletics and performance so they can thrive here.”

Drive and dedication

Prior to Bock working at Denver Public Schools, she worked on K-12 education projects at Hutton Architecture Studio, a firm in Denver. One of her projects was modifying Montebello High School from a single high school to a shared campus of four schools. She left the firm after seven years to become a project manager at Denver Public Schools in March 2013.

“To have been involved in the project a decade ago and now to be helping it reopen as a school again is so rewarding,” Bock says. “Being part of something bigger than myself and seeing the impact on students is so important to me.”

She says she was drawn to the district because of its dedication to students. For example, when the shared campus was opened, she witnessed how the principal of one of the schools provided all students with new uniforms and staff washed the students’ clothes.

“This provided the students with a sense of belonging and respect, where there was a large number of unhoused students,” she says.

Bock, who has a bachelor’s degree in interior design and construction management from Colorado State University and a master’s in architecture from the University of Colorado Denver, also loves her work because of her team. She oversees 12 project managers.

“They have excellent ideas and are so passionate about this work,” Bock says. “They have the drive to deliver the best for students and the community.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. II 2023 Edition here.


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