Workforce Requirements Shape Future for Baldwin County

Spanning 90 mi. north and south, and 45 mi. east to west, Baldwin County, AL., encompasses 2,207 sq. mi. Already one of the largest counties in the country in terms of its geographical size, it is also experiencing significant economic growth. In fact, new business increased more than 170 percent over the last six years, particularly in automotive, aviation, healthcare, and construction, earning Baldwin County a place on Forbes magazine’s list of Top 50 Places to Start and Grow a Business.
Enrollment in Baldwin County Public Schools is increasing as well. Along with this growth is a demand to produce a more skilled workforce. While there was agreement about a commitment to student achievement and the need to more tightly integrate career technical training with academic curriculum, the school system recognized the need to create a defined strategic plan for achieving these goals. The school system, which includes seven existing middle/high/career technical schools facilities and four countywide business communities, needed a solution that balanced curriculum, communication, technology, staffing, resources, facilities, and student services for more than 26,000 students and nearly 4,000 employees.

The challenge, however, was to ensure cohesiveness across the rural, suburban and urban communities, as well as the diverse audiences within the community. The future of career technical education programs within the school system would also need to be more clearly defined.

Focusing Partnerships on Input
The Board of Education and the Baldwin County School administration recognized the importance of community involvement and support, and partnered with SHP Leading Design to obtain input from all potential stakeholders, including local businesses and community leaders, parents, teachers, and third-party experts. A highly participatory community engagement program was developed to include research through focus groups, design teams, and surveys. The ultimate goal was to explore the core values of the community so that those preferences could then be incorporated into the final design plan.

For example, what kind of experience do the community members desire when they drive by and enter the facility? Was there a preference for a facility that resembles a business’s headquarters or one that looks like a traditional schoolhouse?

Qualitative research consisted of seven individual two-hour focus groups, one for each existing school. Each group was comprised of staff, students, and parents that totaled about 60 people. Additionally, four two-hour focus groups were held for business representatives located within each of the four community zones. These focus groups included a variety of industries that totaled about 30 participants. Teachers and students were also asked to rate their excitement and interest in supporting and participating in 16 different career academic groups. Additional quantitative research consisted of approximately 400 written and telephone surveys to gain further insight about current and future educational offerings.

Bringing Results to Life
The research results from the community input process provided Baldwin County with valuable information about what solutions and programs were viewed as relevant and what would receive their support. The input gathered was then tested to evaluate how it delivered on the community’s needs, including whether or not the career/technical schools should make the transition from a traditional career academy to an all-inclusive integrated high school and career/technical offering.

Among the most important values identified, for instance, was a desire for all students to have the opportunity to receive some form of career preparation education. This meant they wanted curriculum offerings that ensured every student would write business papers as part of English class and that business budgeting scenarios would be incorporated into mathematical problems. Additionally, the community wanted schools to provide the most up-to-date, real-world technology and equipment for every aspect of the teaching and learning process. Another priority of members of the business community was to ensure that any new schools would better prepare students for the business world.

Once the research resulted in clearly defined key values for the Baldwin County community, a 15-person design team comprised of participants in the research process met with SHP to develop a more specific strategy. A total of 43 values were divided into one of four groups, including:
•    people-related issues (such as the need to have enough teachers to staff academically rich schools);
•    program-related issues (such as which classes would be taught and how);
•    place-related issues (such as where the school or schools would be located in the county); and
•    promotion-related issues (such as how to talk about the new school to students, businesses, and the community).

Preparing for the Future
Incorporating ideas from the community and key stakeholders helps build confidence for the decision-making process of designing a school and a school system. The community input process can play a key role in shaping the bricks and mortar of school facilities as well as the direction of the curriculum. For Baldwin County, SHP recommended a plan for the future that involved building at least two new career academy magnet schools.

The plan is also designed for schools to be built as the population grows and the necessary budgets are in place. Not only would future schools be built in locations that correspond to the location of housing, but the schools would also be designed to begin by housing a student capacity of 900 or 1,200 students, with the ability to expand to house 1,800 students. Other existing schools with Baldwin County could eventually feed into these schools as appropriate.

An approach that is proven to be flexible in incorporating a wide variety of community ideas allows for the best decisions to be made as schools meet the needs of key audiences. Additionally, a collaborative process enables the development of the most innovative designs and solutions. For the future of Baldwin County, this process can eventually transform career technical schools into modern-day training facilities that better prepare students for future careers while also meeting the area’s workforce needs.

Mike Dingeldein, AIA, LEED-AP, is vice president of Architecture for SHP Leading Design. He can be reached at 513/381-2112 or [email protected]