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Unpacking Big Visions For High School In New Downtown Library

Evening Edition

Above: San Diego’s iconic new downtown library won’t be open to the public until the end of the month. But classes starts tomorrow for students going to the charter high school housed on the building’s 6th and 7th floors. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert visited the school on move-in day.

Aired 9/2/13 on KPBS News.

Staff at e3 Civic High School, the charter school housed on the sixth and seventh floors of the new downtown library, were scrambling to get ready after moving in less than a week before the start of classes.

— San Diego’s iconic, new downtown library won’t be open to the public until the end of the month, but classes starts tomorrow for students going to the charter high school housed on the building’s sixth and seventh floors.

Six days before the start of school for about 260 freshmen and sophomores at the new school, which is called e3 Civic High, teachers and administrators were getting their first full workday in at the library.

The reception desk was still under construction.

Boxed-up furniture was making its way to the school’s entrance on the library’s sixth floor slowly, in the one working elevator. Construction delays kept the staff from moving into the school floors in July, as originally planned.

But walking through the on-going construction in glass-walled rooms, the school's executive director Helen Griffith could already see her school as it will be.

“So, this is physics," she said walking into a large room where floor-to-ceiling windows made up the far wall. The room was empty except for some white tables jumbled around the open space. "Nice sized classroom; we’ll have a little fabrication lab here with laser cutters and other machinery as we move into robotics, our wet area over there for experiments and the rest of this is classroom space," she said.

All of e3's spaces are built for working in teams. Some of the classrooms look like conference rooms and other spaces are designed to bring teachers and students together in casual ways.

“It was designed as a collaborative model," Griffith said. "You’ll see glass walls. You’ll see flexible seating furniture that resembles a Starbucks, a comfortable setting. You’ll see learning spaces that are study niches, 21st century technology throughout the building.”

To match the sophisticated environment, the charter school's students will have to dress professionally — ready for Wednesday afternoon internships in downtown offices and in the library itself.

That’s one reason Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified board of education trustee, was a big supporter of dedicating $30 million of school district bond money to a 40-year lease and upgrades for the two library floors that will house the school.

“The structure of this school is exactly what we need to be doing more and more with high schools in the district," he said. "It’s very much focused on making use of the businesses, organizations, facilities in the downtown area. Getting the kids out, doing internships, integrating real-world experience with the academic experience.”

Parag Chowdhury’s biology and biomedical health classroom was nearly empty, some of the sinks still missing from the lab spaces, but integrating the classroom and the real-world are already part of his plans.

“For my biology course we’re going to try to partner with community members and have students go to various health clinics, other sites that offer various services to the community at large and see what a day in the life is like for those folks,” he said.

The biomedical health program Chowdhury will oversee is one of two pre-professional pathways e3 Civic High students can choose from – the other is digital media. All of their classes will be project-based, which means students will use classroom skills to solve real-world problems. Chowdhury said his students will spend this year solving an elaborate biology-based mystery, the details of which he wanted to keep under wraps until the start of classes.

“So through that process, students will learn a lot about forensics, they’ll learn about different fingerprinting methods, blood typing, human physiology," he said. "And through that what students are really learning is anatomy and physiology and some of the foundational principals of biomedical health.”

It isn’t just the school’s approach to teaching that’s innovative. It may be the first public school in the country located inside a library. The $20 million school lease filled the need for a new downtown high school and saved fundraising efforts for the library, according to Mel Katz, who chairs the board of the San Diego Public Library Foundation and e3 Civic High.

“The school district, its huge win for because you can’t get a 74,000 square foot school for $30 million and for the library it was a great win because we needed that $20 million for our capital campaign,” Katz said.

He believes it’s an investment that will pay off for the region and for the school’s students, the majority of who live in central San Diego and south of the 94.

“I think there are some great high schools in the region," Katz said. "But some are very, very set on four-year college. For us, it’s everyone finishing with an equal education and then they decide which way they want to go. But, I guarantee you – anyone that goes to e3 Civic High will not be graduating in five years, making minimum wage.”

School director Helen Griffith said despite the remaining work to be done, the school staff is ready to get to work.

“We have been meeting consistently over the last year to make sure that all of the details are in place so that when our students show up on Tuesday, they have an exceptional experience,” she said.

Whether or not all of the classrooms are unpacked and ready to go, students and their parents will be at an 8 a.m. opening ceremony Tuesday.

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