The "Little School in the Valley": A High Tech School with a Down-Home Feel

Behind these barn doors awaits a state-of-the-art education.

Behind these barn doors awaits a state-of-the-art education.
The Little School in the Valley

Behind the weathered barn doors of San Pasqual Elementary School hums high-speed Internet access connecting students with the world.

Credit: Jeffrey Felix

San Pasqual Elementary School in Escondido, California, is reminiscent of an early 1900s farming community, complete with a big red barn, silo, town hall, and courtyard. But inside this old-fashioned-looking complex, sixth-grade students are combining digital photography and sound clips from Web sites on Egyptian deities and displaying their presentations on interactive digital white boards.

This state-of-the-art K-8 school is the brainchild of administrators, teachers, and parents, who in 1997 found themselves in desperate need of a larger facility for their one-school district. Today, the new "barn" houses a gymnasium and performing arts center. Inside the "silo" is a library, complete with a cushion-filled reading tower. The "town hall" is, indeed, a meeting hall. And from Monday morning flag assemblies in the rustic courtyard, students head to classrooms that are one click away from the rest of the world via the Internet.

A farming community planted in orange and avocado groves and corn fields, San Pasqual is 30 miles northeast of San Diego. Although some families work in agriculture, most parents commute back and forth to San Diego. Roughly 30 percent of the school's 500 students are Hispanic; 65 percent are white. English language learners comprise 16 percent of the student population. Nineteen percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

In recent years, San Pasqual has undergone tremendous growth. New housing developments have lured families away from the city and have more than doubled the school's student population. In 1997, with the school filled well beyond capacity, the district needed a new facility -- and needed it fast.

Jeffrey Felix, San Pasqual Unified School District (SPUSD) superintendent and principal, led a committee of twenty-four parents and teachers through the process of planning the new school. HMC Architects from San Diego helped identify and acquire a site, secure funding sources, design the school with plenty of input from the community, and oversee construction. Building plans incorporated the most robust technologies available -- both to support teaching and learning and to maximize energy efficiency.

And in 2001, the new barn doors swung open to students.

The LIttle School in the Valley

Sixth graders research historical details for interactive presentations under the watchful eye of teacher/tech coordinator Ken Beeunas.

Credit: HMC Architects

Easy Access to High-Tech Tools

Technology is everywhere. Every K-5 classroom has at least two computers. Most students in grades 6-8 have daily access to a notebook computer. Many students own a notebook and bring it to school. The school also provides financial assistance for students who would otherwise be unable to purchase one.

"When there is a need," says Ken Beeunas, the school's technology coordinator and sixth-grade teacher, "there is a computer available." All classrooms are capable of handling many more computers than are currently in place.

San Pasqual sixth graders have used laptops for several years. Beeunas set up the program based on the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation model from Australia that aims to get technology into the hands of kids "24/7" and thus increase their familiarity and improve learning. High-speed wireless computers enable the sixth graders to work from anywhere within 150 feet of a base station.

Every teacher has his or her own classroom computer for research, presentations, communications, and record keeping. Professional development is ongoing and includes exploring new ways to integrate technology into all areas of study. "We want to make our use of technology as seamless as possible," says Beeunas, who helps teachers enhance their curriculum with technology.

Besides being wired for use by the students and staff, the school was built from the ground up for efficiency in operation. The temperature in each room is monitored and adjusted automatically by a central computer, and it can also be controlled locally from any computer in the school to accommodate personal preferences. When air conditioning is not needed, fans circulate air to prevent stuffiness.

Lights are on automatic timers but can be switched on and off from within each room or via the computer network. Infrared heat-sensing motion detectors in each room also activate lights and are part of the building's security system. Building orientations make use of prevailing winds and mitigate effects of strong, direct sunlight. Deep roof overhangs provide shade. Such well-thought-out features combined with cost-efficient heating, air conditioning, and lighting systems earned the school a $25,000 rebate from the local power supplier and have saved money on monthly energy bills.

The Little School in the Valley

The library's fireplace hearth makes a cozy place for reading.

Credit: HMC Architects

Money-Saving Controls

A focal point of the new school is its library. The school's media specialist, Teri MacDonald, says the old 700-volume library "was shifted around from classroom to classroom as the school kept growing, ending up in a portable building with barely enough room to get between the stacks." Thanks to a state grant the collection is approaching 11,000 volumes and is easily housed in the new space.

The new library's accessible and comfortable facilities support the school's literacy goals and enable students to conduct research through various technologies. Every book in the collection is labeled by reading level to help students select books that match their abilities.

In addition, students needing extra practice in English can access software literacy programs on one of the fifteen computers there. Parents, too, can use the software during evening English classes launched just this year. "At first, it was very intimidating for [parents] to come into the library, let alone work on the computers," MacDonald says. "By the end of the school year, the library was buzzing with learning -- small groups working with a teacher or all of the computer stations busy. The parents were very comfortable and happy with their success. We had parallel books [the same book in English and Spanish] for checkout to read at home with their children."

Over the past fifteen years, many SPUSD eighth graders have journeyed to historic United States monuments with teachers Bryce Bacher and Colby Strongberg after studying related topics in class. In the early years, Bacher says, "Research meant opening an encyclopedia, writing letters, requesting pamphlets." These days, however, students research the monuments on the Internet and create presentations to share with their classmates.

A greater sense of excitement and expectation is ignited through connecting with primary and secondary sources on relevant Web sites. Students interact directly with people involved with events they are studying and places they are planning to visit. Whether they actually make the trip or not, students still bridge history through their virtual experiences from the comfortable and historic environment of the "Little School in the Valley."

This article originally published on 11/5/2003

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