Cover Story - August 25, 2010

Building for the future

New school facilities greet Menlo Park students

by Sandy Brundage

Built during the 1950s, the schools of the Menlo Park City School District five decades later showed signs of the wear and tear inflicted by thousands of students. Students overflowed into portable classrooms on cramped campuses, which also lacked modernizations meant to make school more accessible for the disabled.

But now, even the gyms smell new.

In 2006, voters passed a bond measure to raise $91 million to renovate the four campuses to accommodate a projected 18 percent growth in enrollment by 2014. The new buildings should last at least 30 years, said Ahmad Sheikholeslami, district director of facilities and construction. These facilities now incorporate recycled materials wherever possible, from the floors to the furniture, along with other environmentally friendly measures such as ceiling fans and synthetic grass.

The school district is also counting on $9.4 million in matching funds from the state — but that money has yet to arrive, due to California's dire economic situation. The district hopes the money arrives during the 2010-11 school year, Ahmad Sheikholeslami said.

Here's where the money went:

Encinal Elementary School

(10-acre campus for grades K-5)

Status: Ready

Construction began three years ago to make room for fourth and fifth grades at this elementary school. Now the Encinal campus on Encinal Avenue sports 19 new classrooms, a 4,500-square-foot multi-purpose room, stage, and revamped playground. Students can stretch their legs on a new track-and-field that's nearly twice as large as a professional football field, which was completed in 2008.

Laurel Elementary School

(6.5-acre campus for grades K-2)

Status: Ready

On Edge Road, the Laurel school not only has five new classrooms and three multipurpose rooms, but also a renovated field and playground. Landscaping cleared away overgrown shrubs, while walkways are now smooth and lit by lamps to reduce accidents, Mr. Sheikholeslami said. "It was a jungle, and not very friendly," he noted while gazing at the new courtyard, with its small outdoor stage. The construction managed to preserve most of the school's heritage oak trees.

The school is also part of the city's new "safe routes to school" plan. At the end of July, the City Council approved spending a $441,100 Caltrans grant to add new safety features for children and bicyclists near Laurel Elementary. Lighted crosswalks, new stop signs and streetlights are a few of the features parents may notice this year, according to Chip Taylor, the city's transportation manager.

Oak Knoll Elementary School

(8.13-acre campus for grades K-5)

Status: Ready

As with the other campuses, the drop-off and pickup zone on the Oak Knoll Lane campus were reconfigured for easier access, said Mr. Sheikholeslami. A consolidated field and playground is nearly twice as big as the old arrangement.

The architecture of the new two-story classroom building reflects the residential feel of the neighborhood.

One third-grade teacher, Renee Lavezzo, had her new classroom looking beautiful and ready for students two weeks before classes started.

Hillview Middle School

(9.36-acre campus for grades 6-8)

Status: Under way

The existing buildings at Elder Street will serve as a temporary home for the school until construction of 80,000 square feet of facilities, including two-story buildings, on an open field finishes by 2012.

By moving 11 portable classrooms, the project team carved out an interim blacktop court for basketball, volleyball and handball, said Principal Mike Melton. When the dust settles, the students will have a new track and synthetic sports field, but no tennis courts. The Hillview Parent Teacher Organization is still trying to figure out where the tennis team can scrimmage, according to co-president Libby Tinsley.

Parents, students, and staff may also lament the loss of the murals decorating the school's exterior. While the construction team tried hard to spare as many heritage oak trees as possible, there was no way to save the murals, according to Mr. Sheikholeslami.

"The new facility is an art statement," the director said.

Principal Mike Melton was excited about the new school year. "It's been a challenging start, but everyone's been chipping in." He said the project site is fenced off from the classrooms. "Construction will not interfere with education."

While building continues, the school has asked contractors to observe the city's noise ordinance, and encouraged faculty to walk or share rides to work to ease traffic congestion.


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