Case Studies

Tom Parent – Saint Paul Public Schools

Community voices and an architect’s mindset support learners

In 2015, members of the Johnson Govies, the student leadership program at Saint Paul Public Schools’ Johnson Senior High School, shared concerns about bathrooms with the facilities department staff tasked with replacing antiquated water piping and plumbing fixtures. And they weren’t talking about the facilities not being in good working order.

“Students told us that they weren’t drinking liquids during the day, so they could avoid going to the bathroom out of concerns for their safety,” Tom Parent, the executive director of operations and administration for the Minnesota capital’s school district, tells Blueprint.

This was a major cause for concern, not just from a health standpoint—dehydration has been shown to directly affect learning—but also because students expressed how the environment created a negative school experience, Parent says.

He and his team sat down with the principal, other high school staff and students to hash out a plan. They decided the best course of action was to model bathrooms after ones found in homes: private, respectful, gender neutral spaces with floor-to-ceiling doors and bright lighting, located in areas where lots of people are to keep a sense of collective ownership and accountability.

“People’s bathrooms at home are inclusive, private and secure,” Parent says. “We saw no reason why we couldn’t emulate that inside a school.”

Closed doors are a step forward

Creating gender-neutral, private bathrooms that are still secure was a nuanced task for Parent and his team. Working alongside Johnson Senior High School’s administration and design partners, they came up with a solution that amounts to creating two bathrooms in one: an open common area and then the private toilet area.

The common area is located at a corner, so teachers and other students have a clear 360-degree view of the sinks and mirrors. This area also has cameras. Students can safely wash their hands and look at themselves in the mirror. The openness and collective ownership also helps prevent vandalism and bullying, Parent says.

“Not having mirrors—or mirrors where they could use safely—was troubling to our students, and I can understand that,” he says. “All of us remember being that age, needing to check our hair, teeth or clothes but to also feel seen and visible. I’m glad we were able to give this back to our students.”

Students and faculty of all genders share these restrooms, which were installed by Parent and his team in 14 of the districts’ schools across all grade levels.

“I’m so proud of the work we’ve done and that we’ll continue to do as we put students first throughout all 73 school buildings in the system,” Parent says. “The bathrooms are just one step in that effort, and we’re delighted that other districts and school administration across the nation have been using these inclusive restrooms as guides for their own work.”

Community voices and choices

Parent has been part of the facilities team at SPPS since March 2011 when he was hired as a facility planning manager.

“Having community impact was a large reason why I got into architecture, and being able to work in a large system that gets to shape the daily experience of 35,000 students is incredibly powerful,” he says. “To do it well, we need to be listening to students’ and stakeholders’ voices.”

That’s why his team works hard to engage the community in their projects.

For the bathrooms, he and his team procured feedback from several parents’ associations, such as the Somali Parent Advisory Committee and the Gender and Sexual Diversity Parent Advisory Committee. This allowed them to meet ceremonial washing requirements and support gender identity with a single solution that truly creates inclusivity.

In fact, that solution has been so well received that as they work to open a new East African-focused magnet school, the community’s parents’ first question was if the bathrooms would have the same inclusivity. The magnet school is scheduled to open this September, Parent says.

“We are a very diverse area, and the schools are a large, significant part of the community,” he says. “We want to ensure the facilities are reflecting the communities using them.”

At the moment, he and his team are working on replacing Bruce Vento Elementary School. It was built in the 1970s and desperately needs to be modernized. With significant stakeholder input, the district decided to tear it down and build the new site from scratch—it will be finished by September 2025.

The project is still in the design stage, and they’re constantly asking for feedback from students, parents, teachers and the community. Through this process, the school community has not just shaped what the building will look like and how it will function, but also set a comprehensive vision for it that will support sustainability and community regeneration, Parent says.

“Everything I do in this job is about providing a well-crafted built environment to support learners, and that means working alongside an incredible team and listening to the voices of those who will be using the facilities we’re creating and maintaining,” Parent says.

He went into public sector leadership after working in an architecture firm and obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Minnesota. To continue to expand those skills he even returned to the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in 2013 to complete a one-year policy fellows program, which he credits with reframing a lot of his thinking about civic impact.

“I love being an architect, and I am really proud of the work we’re doing at SPPS,” Parent says. “I know that everything the team does creates a better learning environment for students, teachers, staff and parents, which realizes the community impact that drew me to the field originally.”

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

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