By Michael Rodriguez
As seen in The Monitor
WESLACO — Although it’s been open since late October, IDEA Public Schools gave its new headquarters an official debut this week with festivities that highlighted its flashy and more practical uses.
Such is its innovation that district officials believe the headquarters may herald the arrival of modern workplaces to the Rio Grande Valley.
A ribbon cutting ceremony marked the occasion on Thursday evening, where attendees were taken on a tour of the 33,200-square-foot complex. Within are two buildings, of which one is dedicated to administrative offices and the other for training and event center accommodations, housing 10 conference rooms and six work rooms, and three training facilities capable of seating between 32 and 122 employees.
Among the other facilities inside the new digs, located at 2115 W. Pike Blvd. in Weslaco, are a cafeteria and dining area with a fully-equipped kitchen, two break rooms and a mother-friendly space for breastfeeding.
What’s more, IDEA’s efforts to promote healthy living are evident throughout the facility with two treadmill desks located inside the administration building; not to mention standing workstations and the quarter-mile walking trail that circles the headquarters. Some bathrooms even come equipped with showers for employees who plan to get in a workout while at work.
A silo also captures rainwater to irrigate the courtyard, where outdoor seating, a man-made water feature and native plant life encourages visitors and employees to enjoy the outdoors — all of which landscaped by the Dallas-based Hocker Design Group.
These amenities, including the trail, are open for public use, IDEA External Communications Manager Kisella Cardenas said.
The complex was constructed by Pharr-based Wil-Con LLC and designed by renowned San Antonio-based architects Lake Flato — designers of Pearl Brewery in the Alamo City — to encourage mobility as well as fitness.
For instance, private calls can be taken in smaller “telephone booths” that dot the interior of the administration building, where employees can leave their cubicles for compact, café-style accommodations where power outlets are always handy. Some lamps doubling as chargers for smart phones, tablets and laptops are also scattered throughout.
“We do a lot of video conferencing and phone calls, so it’s an innovative building that really meets our needs,” JoAnn Gama, president, superintendent and co-founder of IDEA Public Schools said on Wednesday.
The district operates 51 campuses out of three regions spanning the Valley, San Antonio and Austin areas. Soon, IDEA will open schools in El Paso and Baton Rouge as part of its ongoing efforts to operate as many as 173 campuses by 2022.
“The office space is really designed to meet those needs, because — here at IDEA — our executive directors who manage the regions, and our vice presidents who manage the schools, don’t necessarily have an office here,” Gama added. “They really office out of their car, and when they are here and need to have meetings, there’s extra space for them. For the first time ever we have significant training space, whereas in the past we’ve had to go out to local communities, hotels and ballrooms to rent or lease. So this is more of a home base for all of the different folks at all of the different schools at all of the different regions.”
Much of the preparations for the Louisiana move are being efforted at the Weslaco HQ. According to Jean Gearhart, IDEA’s headquarters property manager, members of the support staff who assist schools around the state are also tasked with the Baton Rouge venture.
Dolores Gonzalez, chief program officer for IDEA, pointed to the accommodations allowing the entire staff to work together as a plus in accomplishing such endeavors.
“The big thing is we have all the people fitting in one place, whereas the space before I only had half of what I have right now for my team,” Gonzalez said. “So everyone has a home they can come to at work, and we can collaborate more and see each other often for team building. Secondly, the careful attention given to the technological pieces has really equipped us with a lot more video conferencing capabilities compared to a space where — in the past — it was a lot more difficult to hear.”
Another feature many have been impressed with is the inspirational staircase leading to the second floor of the administration building. A combination of hardwood flooring and stone, the staircase features engravings of motivational messages on each step for educators, administrators and non-teaching staff members. It’s where all employees gather each week for a sort of kick-off.
“It’s kind of our bleachers,” Gama said of the stairs. “We do presentations and trainings and share things there, and it’s just a way to get things started for the week.”
For Gonzalez and Gearhart, the fitness opportunities at the complex are especially unique, as well as being in-demand in an area known nationally for its high obesity rate.
“Today we offered yoga at lunch to the staff,” Gearhart said as she gestured toward a large conference room on Wednesday. “You’re not just staying static at your desk; you can move around and work. Walking this property is a beautiful thing and it helps get the blood flowing.”
Gonzalez agreed, further noting that her leisurely strolls on the trail have helped clear the mind.
“The walking trail is definitely something I’ve done a few times,” Gonzalez said. “I just need to get in the habit of doing it more, but sometimes I’ll walk it on a phone call or while doing a lot of thinking on a project I need to do. I’ll just walk out there and jot down some ideas while getting some fresh air.”