Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Rebuilding a School, Revitalizing a Community: School Improvements Enhance a Desire to Learn

A community comes together to improve its school — and realizes much more far-reaching benefits.

April 14, 2003

Running Time: 9 min.

Maribel Quintanar has never studied architecture and she isn't an expert in school planning and design. But the high school sophomore from the Capitol area of downtown Phoenix, Arizona, could write volumes about the impact a school facility has on the way students learn and think -- about school, about their community, and about themselves.

Quintanar spent her first four years of elementary school in small portable classrooms that had no windows, no insulation, and no air-conditioning. The cramped quarters were like little cells -- dark and dreary spaces that were often either too hot or too cold for students and teachers to work comfortably. The playground was small and the equipment was old. Many of the water fountains didn't work and those that did ran only lukewarm water that did little to quench a student's thirst on a hot Arizona afternoon.

"You'd look around and think, 'They don't even take care about this and that,'" recalls the soft-spoken fifteen-year-old. "They don't care about me."

And then, towards the end of Quintanar's third-grade year, the unbelievable happened. The students, staff, and families at Capitol Elementary School received word that a new facility would be built. "It was like, 'Whoa! Maybe they do care about us,'" says Quintanar. "It inspired me. It made me happy. I thought, 'Now I really do have to study and work hard.'" (See the related in-depth case study on the planning and design of Capitol School.)

Principal Cora Garrido convened regular meetings with community members throughout the planning process.

Credit: Edutopia

New Life for a "Dying" Community

When Cora Garrido arrived at Capitol in 1990, the newly appointed principal found a school teetering on the brink of closure. The K-6 facility consisted entirely of ten portable units, brought in as a temporary fix after the original structure was condemned and torn down. "The district viewed us as a dying community," she says bluntly. "It was only a matter of time before the school was closed."

Located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Phoenix, Capitol has more than its share of challenges. It's a community where the only Christmas present a child gets is the one from the Kiwanis, where a sweater in winter is a luxury not all can afford, and where every student qualifies for free breakfasts and lunches. Roughly one-third of the student population turns over every year. Well over half of the school's largely Hispanic population are recent immigrants from Mexico who speak little or no English.

Years of working in dilapidated facilities with insufficient resources to serve the needy population had left many teachers feeling frustrated, burned out, and disconnected from their peers, their students, and the community. Parents were equally disaffected. Many didn't even feel comfortable stepping onto the school grounds. They'd walk their children to the edge of the school property and then watch through the chain-link fence until the students were safely indoors. Although Garrido acknowledges that the facilities were "unacceptable," she was determined not to let the dilapidated structure dictate the school's future. "We needed to focus on the children, not on the facility," she says.

Slowly -- and sometimes painfully -- Garrido began to guide the faculty and the larger Capitol community through a series of structural and pedagogical changes. She met with parents and area business people to understand their concerns and elicit greater participation in the school. She organized workshops for teachers on everything from project-based learning to literacy instruction for English language learners to nurturing parent involvement.

Some teachers left the school; others were reinvigorated by the changes. They began planning lessons together and exploring ways to incorporate projects and activities into their curriculum. A community worker became the bridge between parents and teachers, helping both groups connect. Daily attendance went from among the worst to among the best in the district, as Garrido and her staff worked with students and parents alike to emphasize the importance of being in school seven hours a day, five days a week. (Watch a video of staff back-to-school visits to family homes. QuickTime, 336K.)

In short, the hard work was paying off. Enrollment increased steadily and the temporary facility was full to overflowing. At Garrido's urging, the district put forth a $6.2 million bond measure to build a new school, which the local electorate passed in 1994. Capitol, a school that had been slated for almost certain closure, was given the green light to build a new facility.

For Garrido, for Quintanar, and for the entire Capitol School community, the promise of a new facility was both a reward for their efforts and a catalyst for continued growth and community building. It was a long-overdue break for a community desperately in need of a fresh start.

The planning committee envisioned large, flexible spaces that would facilitate both small- and large-group instruction.

Credit: Edutopia

A New Way of Planning

Responsibility for planning the new school fell to a committee of parents, staff, community members, and businesspeople that Garrido has assembled to direct the process. And despite the wealth of research in support of community-based planning, some of the local "experts" in Garrido's district were none-too-happy with her all-inclusive approach.

Greg Johnson, director of facilities for the Phoenix Elementary School District (PESD), was one of the early skeptics. Looking around the room at the first meeting of the Capitol School Planning Committee, he was baffled by the mix of people Garrido had assembled. "I thought to myself, What do these people know about construction?" recalls Johnson.

Even more surprising to the engineer: No one was talking about the building. Week after week, the conversation was about educational philosophy -- about the programs and practices that would best serve their students. They discussed project-based learning, multiple intelligences, team teaching, and the role of technology in supporting and enhancing their curriculum. "What's to talk about," Johnson recalls thinking. "Let's just build a square box that's easily maintained." To his credit, Johnson didn't voice his doubts with the rest of the committee. And, much to his surprise, he gradually came to understand that the tried-and-true way of designing a new school wasn't necessarily the best way. "I came to realize that it wasn't about me and it wasn't about an easily maintained building," he says. "Everything was about the kids. That's what fueled the process. That's what made it as successful as it was."

Although Johnson's transformation was perhaps the most dramatic, other committee members had similar, though smaller epiphanies. Looking back, many agree that the focus on teaching and learning -- which comprised a full year of discussions before the committee ever talked about the actual building -- helped to unify the diverse group and create a sense of teamwork that would serve the committee well over the many weeks and months of planning.

"There was a real sense of camaraderie," says Tom Lind, committee member and instructional technology coordinator for the district. "We knew we were there for a common purpose and everyone's voice was heard."

Capitol's courtyard has become a central gathering place for members of the school community.


Form Followed Function

With their educational goals firmly in place, the committee's next big task was to select an architectural firm that would help translate their dreams into a new school building. "We had spent so much time creating a vision that we wanted an architectural firm that would respect our work," says Garrido. "We didn't want someone who would say, 'That can't be done.'"

Phoenix architect Paul Winslow saw the power of Capitol's "can do" attitude during his first visit to the old school. "There wasn't a scrap of land that wasn't being used for some educational purpose," says Winslow. Walkways were covered with colored chalk, as student activities spilled out of the overcrowded classrooms. Small plots of ground had been transformed into gardens. A broom closet had been converted into an office for the speech therapist.

"It was pretty clear they were pushing the envelope," says Winslow. "Our job wasn't to tell them what to do. It was to facilitate their exploration."

Students, parents, and staff were asked to describe their ideal school. They drew pictures and covered the multipurpose room walls with their thoughts on everything from the size and shape of classrooms to the colors of the building and the location of the playground. Walking around the school, evidence of those brainstorming sessions is everywhere. The nontraditional colors -- the brick exterior is trimmed with yellow awnings, teal green doors, and purple poles -- reflect the parents' request for a school that was "colorful, but not like a piñata." Pods, encompassing six classrooms arranged in a circular fashion around a large shared activity center, were the design answer to the staff's desire to foster community and have ample space for large projects and for cross-classroom gatherings and activities. (Watch the video tour of a classroom pod. QuickTime, 264K.) Movable walls separate each of the classrooms, a tangible by-product of the goal of cross-classroom collaboration. Every pod also includes a shared office space for teachers, another conscious effort to encourage and facilitate common planning.

The open classrooms and common office and activity areas have helped to foster a sense of community that was lacking in the old school, says reading specialist and former classroom teacher Mari Aguirre. "The attitude used to be 'These aren't my kids. Those are your kids.' Now they're all our kids."

Having worked in poorly lit rooms for so long, students and staff alike wanted plenty of natural light in the new building. Lots of windows were impractical, given the high-crime area in which the school is located, so the committee suggested skylights instead -- a radical idea at the time, but one that has proven to be practical and energy-efficient.

With technology integration high on the committee's list of priorities, members spent considerable time researching and talking about where to put computers and how they might be used to support their educational goals. They decided against a traditional computer lab, opting instead to put computers in all of the classrooms (including the music and art rooms), as well as in the activity centers and the media center.

"We wanted the computers to be accessible to the students wherever they were working," says planning committee member Lind. "We didn't want them stuck away in a lab or placed in the back of the room and used to fill time between lessons."

Community members like Bob Kay have played an integral role in the life of Capitol School.

Credit: Edutopia

It's My School, Too

As much as the new school was designed to support the staff's educational goals, it also serves another, vitally important purpose: It fosters a sense of community among the diverse group of people who live, work, learn, and play in and around Capitol School.

One of the facility's most striking features is a large circular courtyard, which has become the central gathering space for moms, grandmas, and students' younger siblings who sit in the shade and talk long after the morning school bell rings. (Watch a video of the afternoon pick-up ritual in the courtyard. QuickTime, 304K.) Another frequent gathering space is the multipurpose room, which serves as both a cafeteria and a space for assemblies and performances. On particularly hot evenings, or when the multipurpose room is full to overflowing, three large firehouse-type roll doors are pulled open and chairs are set up in the adjacent Ramada, a large covered patio area that is also used for physical education classes and as an outdoor (but protected) play area.

There's a community room, where parents often work on projects for classroom teachers, and a small health center for students and their families, staffed with a full-time nurse and a part-time nurse practitioner. Small garden plots tended by students as part of their science curriculum dot the area outside classrooms. And everywhere you go, there are signs of this now-flourishing Capitol community: Huge class photographs of smiling sixth graders (courtesy of the Kiwanis) line the walls in the multipurpose room. Corridor walls feature photographs of school events and pictures of students who have met their grade-level reading goals. Student-created murals grace the outside walls of the school.

But the emphasis on community building extends well beyond the students, parents, and staff at Capitol. Mary and Joe Salazar, who no longer have children or grandchildren attending the school, are part of the Capitol community. So is Bob Kay, owner of a nearby truck repair business and president of the Capitol Gateway Kiwanis of Phoenix, which sponsors monthly student achievement awards, supports the school through donations of needed materials, and organizes and supports a wide range of community programs. And so are the roughly 250 employees of the downtown Phoenix law firm of Quarles & Brady Streich Lang, whose partnership (that includes everything from serving as room parents to judging the annual essay contest, to coaching the soccer team) with Capitol School is now in its tenth year.

The Salazars have lived across the street from Capitol School for thirty-nine years and have seen first-hand what the beautiful new facility has meant to their neighborhood.

"Oh my gosh. We're so proud of the new school. We're so proud of it," says Mary Salazar. "There's been a lot of changes around here since the new school was built," she adds. "A lot of people have remodeled or painted their houses, which, you know, is good for us. Good for the neighborhood."

Like the Salazars, Kay has seen plenty of changes since the building of the new Capitol School. "We don't have near the number of break-ins or the crime in the area that we had ten years ago. People are proud of the school, proud of the community," says Kay, who was one of the businesspeople Garrido asked to join the new school planning committee.

"It takes all kinds to make it work," says Kay, who for more than a year turned his small business over to his son so he could attend planning meetings. Although he was no stranger to the students and staff at Capitol before he joined the committee, the process added a new dimension to the relationship.

"After being asked to help design the school, it just becomes part of you," says Kay, adding with a wave of his hand, "This is my school, too."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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