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What Three New San Diego Schools Tell Us About Safety And Design

Shelli Kurth and Nicole Assisi look out the window of Thrive Public School in...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Shelli Kurth and Nicole Assisi look out the window of Thrive Public School in Linda Vista while it's still under construction, Aug. 3, 2018.

What Three New San Diego Schools Tell Us About Design And Safety Trends

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Megan Burks, education reporter, KPBS News

Just a few weeks ago, Thrive Public School in Linda Vista was still missing windows and floors. The charter school campus broke ground a little more than a year ago and completed it just in time to welcome its first students this week.

In Escondido, Epiphany Prep Charter School students walked into a hardware-store-turned-school. Crews spent the summer carving the warehouse’s 36,000 square feet into brand-new classrooms and assembly spaces.

And in downtown’s East Village, crews repaired flooring and added a fresh coat of bright paint to welcome back Urban Discovery Academy students. Like Thrive and Epiphany, the three-year-old campus offers a glimpse into the latest school design trends.

What Three New San Diego Schools Tell Us About Safety And Design

Collaborative Spaces

If you’ve been a student during the last handful of decades then you know the sound of metal desk legs being dragged against linoleum. Educators have long asked students to free their desks from tidy rows to work in groups. Now they’re building spaces where group work is the default setting.

At Thrive, classrooms are clustered in two's, with large barn doors between them. Teachers can open the doors to combine classes for certain lessons. A small, office-like space that can be accessed by both classrooms offers another place for students to learn.

“You might have a few students who are really doing some independent work while other people are collaborating, so this space can be a collaboration lab, it could also be an independent or quiet space,” said Principal Shelli Kurth.

The idea is that students learn at different paces and in different ways, so they need different spaces, too.

Next year at Epiphany, crews will tear down temporary walls they built during this phase of construction and replace them with collapsible glass walls, providing a similar opportunity for collaboration.

“There are times where we need our students in a smaller group so we can provide targeted intervention. But there are times where you should embrace the benefits that each child brings,” said Principal Anna Lozano. “Having that ability to open the classroom and make it large allows us to do a lesson with 90 students and to bring their best into that lesson, versus just a class of 30.”

This isn’t the first time educators have tried to build open, collaborative schools. It’s a riff on a design idea from the 1970s, but newer materials help to limit noise transfer and offer greater flexibility.

At Urban Discovery, classrooms are much more traditional, enclosed spaces. But rectangular desks have been replaced by desks that fit together like fans, creating half-rounds that allow for lectures and group work. A separate “maker studio,” where students can use tools to build things, allows for additional collaboration.

School As A Community Center

Gordon Kovtun is the principal of construction management firm KCM Group and has helped to build schools for 20 years. He said one of the biggest trends he’s seen in education is a departure from sprawling, suburban campuses. Put simply, space is at a premium as communities are built out. But that’s fostered a community-centered approach.

At Urban Discovery, students go to recess on the roof. All around are towering condos and building cranes. Large windows downstairs also offer urban views, including homeless passersby, and the students sometimes go on walking tours of their neighborhood to connect their learning to the real world.

“It just lends itself to really authentic and meaningful conversation in the classroom,” said Mari Monroe, who teaches seventh and eighth-grade English. “Being in an urban area kind of solidifies that this is their community, and we get to be a part of that community and answer questions on how do we solve problems here, and how do we do the outward spread to the rest of San Diego and even our world?”

At Thrive, where massive windows look out onto neighboring backyards and shops, this tangible connection to community is also seen as an asset. The school, built in partnership with the Bayside Community Center, will even double as a space where community members can learn Vietnamese and host other programs in the evening.

Epiphany doesn’t offer the same kinds of views, but it’s smack in the middle of Escondido’s commercial zone, across from a Mexican grocery store many of the school’s families frequent. Lozano said that drives home a message of belonging.

“We’re not just teachers or support staff, we are a family that truly supports each other and the stories we bring to the table,” she said.

Safety That Doesn’t Scream Danger

To make their school secure, Epiphany fenced in the entire property and installed a camera and controlled entry system where cars arrive. Once inside the school, staff rely on wide hallways with mirrors and long sight lines — and eventually those glass walls — to constantly monitor who’s in the school.

But Lozano said the school's greatest security measures are the 10 home visits teachers do for every student. They can get a sense of whether something is amiss at home. And students get weekly counseling sessions.

“(Counselors) go into classrooms and they provide small group sessions on how do we control our anger, what do we do when we feel a certain way?” she said. “Because if you don’t give students an outlet, they hold it, they hold it, and then they find whatever way they know to release. For us, it’s about preventative care.”

RELATED: The School Shootings That Weren't

While Thrive and Urban Discovery have locking systems that allow them to control access and lock down their campuses quickly, they also say their greatest safety efforts are around helping students to know one another, to be successful and to feel part of their community.

School safety experts and studies back them up.

“If you want to create with your physical space the most safe thing, you’re going to put kids in cells and that’s called a jail,” said Amy Klinger, a researcher and trainer with the nonprofit Educator’s School Safety Network.

“We know that if you really want to prevent violence, you have to create a culture that’s positive where kids will disclose what they know, and where we’ll be able to train our teachers and educators to prevent violence,” she said.

Educators are trying to build schools that are open and welcoming but don’t compromise security. KPBS spent the summer touring school construction sites to find out how they’re trying to strike that balance.

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