Old-school makeover means new life at Ponderosa

Ponderosa Elementary School principal Jerrol Olson
Ponderosa Elementary School principal Jerrol Olson "high fives" Mrs. Heckema's first-grade class as they walk by the "open concept" Media Center on their way to lunch, while a class is in session. (J. Bart Rayniak)

When Ponderosa Elementary School opened in 1979, it was the pride of the neighborhood. With its open-concept design, parents could walk in and from the front door see all the way to the back of the building.

Principal Jerrol Olson said the school was built around the same time as the Ponderosa neighborhood. When folks started moving into the area, many of them had children who attended Ponderosa. The children grew up and moved on, but the parents are still there, long-term residents who probably still think of the school as new.

“From the outside, if you look at the condition, the general condition, our maintenance department has really done a great job of maintaining the facility,” Olson said. “It’s well-painted and the lawns are trimmed and green. It looks good as you drive by, but when you take a closer look, you begin to see the aging structure.”

The school is slated for remodeling if the Central Valley School District is successful in passing its construction bond on the ballot in February. The district has a $102.4 million plan to remodel and modernize five schools, build an elementary school and upgrade the security systems districtwide. Of that total, taxpayers will contribute $69.6 million and the state will pay $32.8 million. The district expects its tax rate to rise 65 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2012.

At Ponderosa, the project is estimated to cost taxpayers $13.27 million and will receive about $7.27 million in state matching funds.

The “open concept” design of Ponderosa and some other schools in the district presents particular problems. According to a trend at the time, the schools were built with large open spaces and portable walls.

With the portable walls in place, some rooms have heating vents in them and some don’t. Olson said jokingly that if one teacher is complaining to him about the heat and another teacher down the hall is complaining about the cold, he figures the HVAC system has struck a nice balance.

Another problem is safety. Olson said that in 1979, parents were usually the only visitors to a school.

“We didn’t have much concern beyond that,” he said. “Whereas now, we want to be fully aware of who enters the building and when. We certainly have to be aware that not everybody who enters the building is entering it for a good reason.”

When visitors come in, they see a large entryway that acts as the school’s multipurpose room. The office is far away from the door.

Olson said that sometimes parents or grandparents enter the building during lunch. They may sit down and have lunch with their child and leave before school officials learn of the visit. Olson said lunchtime supervisors try very hard to pay attention to who is coming and going, but inside the crowded room it is difficult.

If there were ever a crisis situation in which a dangerous person entered the school, Olson said, “Well, we don’t have doors, so you hunker down in a corner of a classroom. Any intruder still has full access to absolutely every part of the building.” In schools with a more standard design, students drill for such crisis situations by closing classroom blinds and locking the door, he said.

Custodian Bill Bronsch said students often must ask him for help turning off the faucets in one of the bathrooms, which leak. The floor in that bathroom is crumbling with age, and he patches it often.

The toilets in the bathroom are wall-mounted – a shared wall with another restroom. So if someone sits on one toilet, the toilet behind it raises up, creating a teeter-totter effect.

Bronsch also fights ants that crawl in through cracks in the concrete floor.

Another problem with portable walls is a lack of outlets, since the technology teachers used in 1979 was nothing compared to what it is today. In the computer lab, Olson describes the technique used to get electrical cords to the plugs as a daisy chain. There are a few outlets on the floor, creating a tripping hazard.

The open space makes it difficult for teachers to control the noise levels in their classrooms. If one teacher is having a quiet lesson with the children, another may be having a hands-on activity. Many have created their own walls using bookshelves, homemade screens using PVC pipe and fabric or even quilts.

Third-grade teacher Mary Shea knows all too well the problems Ponderosa has. In the middle of December, her classroom is so warm she is usually wearing sandals.

“The average temperature is 76 to 80 degrees pretty much every day,” she said.

She said the noise is also a big problem. She has no doors to shut and it can be hard to keep the kids focused, especially since it’s already hot in the room.

“By the afternoon, they are dead tired,” Shea said.

The room is an interior space with no natural light. She said that when the power goes out, which it does periodically since the electrical system is maxed out, the room is pitch black.

Olson said he has high hopes for the bond’s passage. He was on the district’s capital facility planning committee and said they took a look at the district as a whole and came up with a plan for the next 25 years. The projects on this bond are just the first of five construction bonds the district will ask voters to approve over the next quarter century.

He said there are many challenges to teaching students in his facility, but the teachers and staff do the best they can, despite those challenges.

So do his students.

“I am so proud of the kids and how hard they work.”

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