Morris Aldridge – Tacoma Public Schools
Morris Aldridge says it never gets old: watching elementary school children walk into a new school and hearing them squeal with delight.
It’s almost as good as Christmas morning, he says.
Delivering on a positive educational experience is something Aldridge knows a thing or two about. As a former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent, he joined Tacoma Public Schools in Washington state in 2017 as the executive director of planning and construction.
With eight outdated schools to replace in the pipeline, Aldridge says excitement is building for the opening of the new Boze Elementary in September of 2020. The timeline of the other schools to follow will be determined by voters this coming February in a local referendum.
“No question, my favorite part of my job is working with the kids and making sure they’re part of the process,” Aldridge, a former science and physical education teacher, says. “It also feels great to look at a building and know that the community worked together for the children and that the money was spent wisely.”
It takes a village
With the average age of American schools being 69, no question, the time had come to replace older buildings in the district, Aldridge says.
With more than 50 campuses spread across 35 elementary schools, nine middle schools, and eight high schools, Tacoma is the third largest school district in the state of Washington.
But where to swing the hammer first?
Boze Elementary was the easy answer. Built in 1961 the school was outdated and had seen heavy use serving around 500 children from pre-K through Grade 5. As the school’s first design-build project in the Puget Sound region, Aldridge landed at a proposed a cost of $310 per square foot—lower than what state planners had estimated. Hopefully with voter approval, a middle school, a high school and six elementary schools will come next, he says.
“The process is a real eye-opener,” Aldridge says. “But we were successful by designing exactly what we wanted and bringing it under budget. We hope to do that with other projects as well.”
With approvals in place, Aldridge and the team wasted no time.
Starting work on the $35 million project in 2018, Aldridge says the district is four months away from getting a certificate of occupancy for the 59,631-square-foot elementary school—and the students never missed a beat because they never missed a class.
How did they do it?
“The site is large enough that we could build the new school right behind the old one,” he says, with students attending class in the old building while the new one was building built. “Teachers integrated the construction changes into the curriculum to educate the children, showing them how things were coming together.”
A matter of perspective
It’s that integration of education with physical space, combined with his teaching and administration expertise, that excites Aldridge and gives him an edge.
For example, in the new school design he suggested construction of rooms for teachers in between the classrooms to allow them the space to prep between classes.
Another example: Recognizing a segment of low-income families with needs in the community, Aldridge requested a dedicated space for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
And last, he required rooms to have a flexible layout, so most rooms are now between 900 and 1,000 square feet and can be completely reconfigured with furniture. While similar in size to the older rooms, the trend in the district had been to move to smaller classrooms ranging from 750 to 850 square feet.
“There’s no standard setup with chalkboards. The schools are utilizing whiteboards and new technologies such as interactive white boards and built-in sound systems for teachers which includes microphones for the teacher and several students to best fit in with every teacher’s teaching style,” Aldridge says.
Outside of the classroom, Aldridge aimed to create a safe and secure environment, with his team installing cameras while still maintaining a warmth to the property that metal detectors would have spoiled.
“This is an elementary school at the heart of the community, and we want to reflect and support its needs,” he says.
Part of satisfying Aldridge’s personal desire for growth came about unexpectedly, when an administrator in his former district in Clint, Texas, decided to retire.
With a love of building things, he was intrigued by the opportunity. He applied for the job and got it.
“As a teacher and administrator I knew from experience what goes into a classroom and how decisions are made, but I needed to learn a lot of things about construction, its terminology and methods,” he says.
To get up to speed, he became a student, attending construction bootcamps; conferences with attorneys to learn about contracts; and honing his focus to better understand the engineering requirements behind every classroom.
But maybe the most important lesson Aldridge learned is that every successful school project starts with the interests of the primary customers: the children.
“It’s my job to make sure equity lands evenly across the board for all students, regardless of income or geography,” Aldridge says. “We want to start everyone out on the same foot.”
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