Rob Lange is education market manager for Milliken Carpet, LaGrange, Georgia, a business unit of Milliken & Company, which has won the U.S. Commerce Department's Malcolm Baldrige award for the company's total quality management process.

Working with APPA on the K-12 Task Force has been one of the most fascinating and positive experiences of my career. Those of us at Milliken Carpet who are involved in sponsoring this task force have gained invaluable insight into the infrastructure needs, funding issues, and professional challenges encountered by those who manage K-12 school physical plants. We have gained a real appreciation for the personal and professional commitment that task force members and leaders have dedicated toward creating a better learning environment for students.

Milliken Carpet has viewed this sponsorship as an opportunity to support and learn from APPA. The task force opportunity presented itself last year in a meeting with APPA president Pieter van der Have. At the time, Milliken had just reorganized to become more specialized in the various market segments served by our company. As part of that process, I had spent the past year visiting some 250 schools and talking with people at every level who are concerned with a wide diversity of issues and needs facing their institutions and departments. When you ask a lot of open-ended questions, you get some answers you wouldn't necessarily expect. One of the questions I asked Pete was "What can Milliken do for you?" Without hesitation, he brought out plans for the K-12 Task Force. The sponsorship fits beautifully with Milliken's philosophy adopted from the Franklin-Covey Organization "to seek to understand before being understood." We immediately agreed to sponsor the 18-month effort.

What followed were three meetings sponsored by Milliken at our headquarters in LaGrange, Georgia. By gathering in LaGrange, we could provide the facilities and business resources needed to optimize the participants' time and meeting outcomes. The group was diverse, including representatives from some of the largest school districts in North America. And yet, common concerns soon emerged. All were focused on harnessing the potential of their facilities to:

One reoccurring issue was the school's image. The school's appearance was cited as a key contributing factor in competing effectively against alternative choices such as private education, home schooling, and initiatives for charter schools. The growing trend toward using schools as community centers also fuels the need for aesthetically pleasing interior spaces. Many school interiors require upgrades to be used for year-round public gatherings and for events by groups such as Boy Scouts and senior citizens. Upgrading school facilities enhances the whole community. By listening to task force members, we at Milliken could better understand how carpet could be used as a cost-effective design tool to improve the appearance of interior spaces and to update the look of facilities. As a result, we have changed our approach to educational organizations and have developed a different package of carpets and services to meet the needs of K-12 institutions.

Milliken also has taken on the infectious enthusiasm that was so evident at task force meetings. Though the challenges of K-12 institutions are daunting, the future vision that was molded in these meetings is exciting, and we believe that the challenges to accomplish this vision are achievable.

Milliken played a role in defining this future vision in 1996 as a sponsor of the Smithsonian's Classroom of the Future. The classroom was unveiled by the United States Speaker of the House, himself a former teacher, to show educators how to overcome current building limitations and to integrate new technologies into classrooms. The model electronic classroom is the brainchild of Robert Carlson, the director of management and technology services for the nonprofit organization, The Council of Great City Schools. Milliken Carpet and AMP were chosen for the project for their ability to provide access flooring that conceals under-floor cabling, power sources and phone lines and allows easy access for maintenance and the constant moving of equipment.

The Smithsonian Classroom of the Future demonstrates an exciting vision for future education. However, Milliken's sponsorship of the K-12 Task Force provided broader insights, because the task force focuses on future goals as well as current realities and the changes that must be made to infrastructure to bring us closer to the vision.

To chart the journey that will bring us toward the Smithsonian's model classroom, we will need to think creatively about funding, volunteerism, products and services, and technology. At Milliken University, we learn how to "think outside the box" and the learning center offers a variety of curriculum to Milliken associates and customers. At task force meetings, we undertook some common Milliken exercises to facilitate creative thinking. We watched a video by futurist Joel Barker. We learned from United Way on how to optimize volunteerism. And we brainstormed on how to benchmark our progress by looking outside our industry and institutions to organizations and businesses that are the best of class in their industry.

Certainly, we haven't solved the infrastructure crisis faced by America's K-12 schools. But we have begun to lay a road map that may help with future problem solving. I believe it has been a win/win experience for Milliken and the task force. The sponsorship allowed the task force to focus on its mission, rather than on funding issues. And Milliken was able to further support APPA and education one of Milliken's core values. Milliken & Company supports a number of school programs and universities through its foundation and personal giving. Many of our associates are involved in teaching, educational fund-raising and participation on boards of trustees.

Milliken has been honored to be associated with this task force's hard work, professional passion and tenacity of purpose. We commend the task force members who have given so much of their time and talent to what I now understand to be a challenging, but meaningful journey.