When the new Ponderosa Elementary School officially opens on Monday, the only people more excited than the students will be the teachers and staff.
They’ll exchange a low, squat building that resembles a bunker for one that is open and airy. The rooms in the new school are large, not converted storage rooms. There are classroom walls and doors instead of makeshift dividers separating classes in large open-concept spaces. And there are windows. Lots of windows.
“This school looks like the Ponderosa (neighborhood),” said Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small.
Principal Sasha Deyarmin won’t be sorry to see the old school go. Built in the 1970s when open-concept teaching was popular, the lack of doors and walls are now seen as a safety issue. She said if she stands in the center of a “house” that is home to several classrooms, she can clearly hear what is happening in each room.
“If you’re a learner that gets distracted at all, it’s pretty hard,” she said. “Great for supervision, bad for learning.”
The old school is becoming difficult to maintain, Deyarmin said. The heating system works intermittently, and the air conditioning quit and can’t be repaired. Some classes have been measured at 85 degrees and most classrooms don’t have windows.
“Our facilities are not able to handle our staff and students anymore,” she said.
Another problem solved by the new building is overcrowding. When Deyarmin started at Ponderosa three years ago, there were 350 students. Now there are 423.
“We were taking students from across the district when I started,” she said. “We’re full with just our Ponderosa students.”
The growing school and new regulations dictating smaller class sizes for grades K-3 meant that every room had to be repurposed. Storage rooms were turned into classrooms and items were simply stored in the hallways.
The new school is one of several construction and remodeling projects paid for by a $121.9 million bond approved by voters in 2015. The final price tag for the school is expected to be $19.9 million, which includes money the district saved on design costs by closely modeling the school after the new Liberty Creek Elementary.
The new school will house 502 students in 29 classrooms. The K-3 rooms are smaller since those classes are capped at 17 students. Each room has a large wooden rocking chair for teachers while they lead story times. There are even plastic, child-sized chairs that rock for students who need to fidget or move while they work.
Other key improvements include a wooden floor for the gym and a stage with curtains. The school has a very active drama program, and it will be great to have a dedicated space to put on performances, Deyarmin said. The space can also be used by community groups.
“Our school gets used,” she said. “This is a community school.”
Small said he is happy that there was enough room to put the HVAC system inside the school, which will make servicing it easier. “No more climbing up on the roof,” he said.
Perhaps the most important upgrades are the safety improvements. The office is now right next to the front door with clear visibility. The outer doors of the school entrance will be kept unlocked, but a second set of interior doors will be kept locked at all times, Deyarmin said. Visitors must be buzzed into the office before being allowed in the school and a video camera sits above the buzzer.
The old Ponderosa Elementary will be torn down starting in mid-April. The space will be turned into parking, a soccer field and a bus loop. That work is expected to be complete before school starts in the fall.
Small said building a new school next to the old one instead of trying to do a remodel saved eight months. A remodeling project also would have meant sending all the students out of the neighborhood during construction, which no one wanted, he said.
“We’re excited for the Ponderosa community,” he said. “It’s warm, it’s inviting.”
The opening of the new school will be celebrated with a community dedication at 6 p.m. on May 31. Several student groups will be performing and alumni are invited to attend.
“These kids have lived through two years without a playground,” Deyarmin said. “They deserve to celebrate.”
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