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JCISD Central Campus Project - Meet the Architect: Covalle Group Architects

June 28, 2022

Jackson, Mich. –  When Jason Covalle walked the halls of Frost Elementary School as a fifth grader in the eighties, he had no idea that his future self would be instrumental in prolonging the building’s life for generations to come. 

Jason Covalle is the President of Covalle Group Architects and chief architect of the new Jackson County ISD Central Campus project. Architecture has always been a passion of Jason’s; he grew up watching his dad sketch blueprints by hand. His father, George, was an architect at Kressbach and Dabbert, the firm hired to do almost all of the Jackson Public Schools buildings in the 1950s, and continued to work on JPS buildings throughout his career. Eventually, George left to start his own firm, and Jason joined him after getting his master’s degree in 1997. The two approached then-JPS Superintendent Dan Evans to express interest in any future work the district may have planned. After the 2004 bond issue passed, JPS hired The Covalle Group to do ⅓ of the buildings in the district, with Frost Elementary being one of them. “We did all the window upgrades, bathroom upgrades, and several other miscellaneous projects,” said Jason. “What was cool for me was that I went to that school for grades 5-7, so it was kinda crazy to step back inside the school after all that time.” 

George Covalle also helped design the Jackson County ISD campus on Browns Lake Road, across from Jackson College. When Jason was hired for an expansion of the Welding Lab at the Jackson Area Career Center, they rolled out the old drawings for the building, with his father’s touch all over them. “I could tell right away it was my dad’s handwriting; how he drew, the font he used, it was all hand-drawn at the time, they didn’t have all these digital programs for design that they do now,” said Jason. “It was very cool to go back and see his name on things, knowing he played a big part in that project.”

Jason used to do a lot of commercial work outside of Jackson, mainly metro Detroit. But if you ask him today, he definitely prefers the work in this small community of Jackson. “The travel was terrible, the municipalities were difficult to work with. Here in Jackson, our building department is the greatest group of people you could ever work with,” said Jason. “A lot of the work gets done administratively, so you’re not waiting a year or more for the city to approve site plans like you would if you were in a bigger city like Detroit.” Working in the small community that he also lives in gives Jason the opportunity to connect with the client in a more personal way. “The ISD has been a great partner in this project. As we went through the study phase of this building and what it needs to be saved, the district was looking at how the building could be used for the variety of special education programs and services it offers,” said Jason. “A lot of owners don’t always have the time to sit down and critically think through the programming and how it all works out. This building turned out to be just perfect because of how it's compartmentalized. While there were some problems that needed to be fixed, it was clear this building, in this location in the city, was going to be great for the students.”

Jackson County ISD Director of Finance and Operations Roger Auwers says having Jason Covalle as the lead architect on this project has been fantastic because of his commitment to the project and the entire Jackson area. “It all stems from his growing up in the Jackson community, his going to Frost School as a kid, and the fact that he still lives in the Jackson community today,” said Auwers. “The pride he takes and the passion he has for helping to make Jackson better show through in his work continually.” Auwers says that one of the most impressive things he’s noticed in working with Jason is that nothing seems to phase him. “Jason is a problem solver, and whenever we encounter "surprises" - and that can happen when you are renovating a 70 year old building - he just calmly figures out, along with the rest of the team, what is the best way to deal with the issue and move forward,” said Auwers. 

Working in the community he grew up in means Jason gets to work with a lot of the same people on different projects. Jason says The Covalle Group has had a great working relationship with R.W. Mercer, the construction manager on the project, for nearly 15 years. “What’s great about working with Mercer is the subcontractors they hire for projects; we all respect one another, so if one subcontractor has an idea, everyone is all ears because it’s for the good of the project. We can all sit around the table and figure it out together. That’s a rarity these days, everyone is so fragmented - and it’s normal to expect that. But here, you can walk through these halls and see someone from Hirst Electric or Ajax Heating & Air Conditioning, and you know them by name and they know you. It’s a good community effort.”

Jason’s commitment to this project didn’t stop when his designs were approved. When this project was put on hold in December 2021 to address citizens’ concerns about the removal of some large, old oak trees, Jason attended board meetings and a community meeting to hear those concerns firsthand. It was important for him to hear their viewpoint so they could be a part of the solution. At JCISD’s request, Jason went back to the drawing board and came up with an alternative site plan that saved all but two of the nine trees slated for removal. “They (JCISD) put this project on hold for four months, allocated resources and delayed moving into the building until later in the school year. That’s a lot of sacrifice - but JCISD administration and board members saw the value in that, and if the owner sees a value in that, then I’m going to be there to help out. Same with Mercer. Our civil engineers were fantastic; they dropped what they were doing and worked with us step by step. When you have a good team like that, that makes a fun and rewarding project.”

While the ribbon cutting for this new JCISD Central Campus is still months away, Jason plans to watch the celebratory moment from a distance. “I’ve already done my part. I look forward to seeing the owner’s reaction, the owner’s employees’ reactions, and the students’ reactions - that’s the most rewarding part to me. Yes, it’s a nice building and we saved it from a landfill, but the best part will be seeing the kids use the building for years to come. When you sit back and think about the process you went through with the client, and see them happy at the end using it, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a good story to tell.”

(Photos below taken on site on Tuesday, June 28, 2020)

new entranceexterior driveearly childhood hallwayclassroom doorwaybus lane curbing

main entranceclassroom wallinteriorstorm water system

Kaci Babineau
Marketing & Special Projects