It may be a few years old, but Westlake High School (WHS), part of the Eanes Independent School District (ISD) near Austin, Texas, has already been lauded as one of the top facilities in the country.

The district probably didn’t set out to establish records. Rather, it simply wanted to either build a new facility or expand the one it had. Technology would be a critical part of the classroom and the overall facility. The expansion, including better voice/data/video applications and cable TV (CATV) would eventually take two years and bring an expanded and more modern experience for the area’s 2,397 high school students and faculty members. KST Electric Ltd., Manor, Texas, provided the electric and low-voltage instal-lation on the renovation.

The retrofit and addition signaled the end to a decade-long discussion about how to better accommodate the high school. At one time, the district proposed building a second school, but voters rejected that. In 2001, a ninth-grade center attached to WHS was constructed.

At the same time, the district considered specific improvements in addition to more space. It needed more science areas and was seek-ing new and improved classrooms and low-voltage solutions, such as television and media centers in each classroom.

During the planning of this project, the focus was on ensuring the additions and renovations would contribute the best educa-tional opportunities to the students of the Eanes community, according to school spokesperson Dale Whitaker.

“In an effort to be good stewards of the district’s financial resources, Eanes ISD leaders sought to diminish future repair costs so that more funds could be directed at meeting students’ educational needs for years to come,” she said.

Improvements included new and updated classrooms, bigger and better science rooms with prep space, laboratories and larger storage areas, and larger computer classrooms with office space. Added were special education suites; spaces for yearbook, journalism and art; a renovated library in the main building; and reconfiguration and improvement of the counseling and health clinic areas.

The school district hired Baird Williams Construction, Round Rock, Texas, as general contractor. The $20 million renovation would include 75,000 square feet of new construction that would provide space for administration, locker rooms, classrooms, a cafeteria and a kitchen. In addition, Baird Williams would undertake renovation of the entire facility, said Blair Williams, construction manager. The school needed 16 science classrooms as well as new floors; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and fixtures in the existing 300,000-square-foot facility.

KST Electric installed electric service for an improved front entrance, a multipurpose area called the “Chap Court,” administra-tive suites on the main level with direct access to Westbank Drive, a new band hall and mezzanine, lighting in the fine arts facility, elevators for handicapped access, and additional restroom facilities.

KST Datacomm, a division of KST Electric, was the voice and data communications service company. KST Electric provided the electric services for the entire school, and KST Datacomm provided the design for the CATV system as well as installation and test-ing for the voice and data networks.

It was a $2.5 million project for KST Electric, with 24 electricians on-site at its peak. The company began the electrical work in May 2004, running conduit and installing fixtures and electric closets throughout the following school season. The goal was to reach comple-tion by the fall of 2006. Altogether KST installed fixtures at a price tag of $96,000, plus $350,000 in switchgear and $275,000 in labor.

KST Datacomm came on board about one month into the project. The $350,000 low-voltage project included voice/data/video, fiber connections and CATV plus a $96,000 CATV change order, said Rick Gavin, KST Datacomm division manager and project manager, a role he shared with Barry Carter.

Navigating through challenges

The building had already been renovated once in the 1990s, Williams said. In this project, however, the renovation was on a larger scale, encompassing the whole facility, providing additional and updated services as well as more space.

There was some design work involved.

“There were not a lot of drawings,” Gavin said, so the contractor worked closely with the district to ensure the system was designed the way students and faculty members would need it.

The challenge was that the work had to be done while students were still in the school. That required some creative management. Baird Williams set up eight portable trailers and rotated students through those classrooms when their permanent classrooms were under construction.

“It was a full-time job just keeping everything in operation,” Williams said.

“The No. 1 priority was maintaining a productive and safe learning environment for the students of Westlake High School throughout the renovation process,” said school spokesman Whitaker. “That process included accommodating class schedules and the needs of extra-curricular student groups, while providing a supportive work environment for teachers and staff. The attitude and cooperation of WHS students, staff, parents and community was tremendous.”

“Getting the science rooms up and running while the students were occupying the buildings was most challenging,” Williams said. Gavin agreed.

“Working around the kids was the hardest part,” he said. “Often times, when the bell rang, we had to get down and move.”

In addition to those problems, the school facilities director and administrators changed over, with the individuals responsible at the beginning of the project replaced before the project was completed. That added another level of challenge, which required extra communication with the school district and facilities’ personnel, Gavin said.

Managing the media

Like most new school installations, Westlake required media features that were unavailable 10 years ago. Every classroom included voice/data drops for a teacher’s workstation, which allowed the instructors to have media capabilities. This consisted of a laptop they could place within the workstation and connect to VGA and RCA cables that allowed them to project what was on the laptop onto a large screen. Projectors are installed in the ceiling of each classroom aimed toward a screen at the front of the room. KST installed the entire system except the projection screen mounts, Gavin said.

KST Datacomm installed a Panasonic video camera with a T7 sub-band modulator to go to any cable outlet, allowing the user to broadcast live on a specific channel to be seen throughout the school. That system could be used for live announcements or news crew broadcasting. Altogether, the TV system has about 150 cable connection outlets, Gavin said.

The company installed a head-in system to allow selection of television channels to be shown in any or all of the classrooms through the school.

The school includes capability for as many as 20 in-house channels to be selected at any given time, overriding the cable network. The greatest problem with this system was it could affect the television reception of the school’s neighbors, limiting them to the same channel selection the school makes. To alleviate that, KST Datacomm installed filters at the school to keep the signal from migrating out of the area. KST Datacomm also added dozens of VCRs and DVD players.

To achieve all this, KST Datacomm ran Category 5e plenum cable throughout the building and addition and installed 1,800 jacks. It re-modeled nine telecommunication closets and added several new ones in the renovation. The closets are connected with fiber, with one main distribution frame and intermediate distribution closets tied in with high-count 100-pair copper. One closet was even constructed in the coach’s locker room. CATV from the library runs through the closets via a trunk line in the ceiling. KST set taps in the ceiling about 100 feet from the classrooms with a maximum of 150 feet between them.

The payoff

KST finished on schedule in October 2006. Completing the project on schedule, while students were attending classes, and with multiple change orders to implement, required a great deal of flexibility on the part of the contractors.

New technologies and amenities and the 166 high-tech classrooms apparently succeeded in helping to enhance the learning process; Newsweek magazine has since named Westlake High School one of the top schools in the country.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.