Almanac

Community - April 16, 2014

Partnership built around learning, community — and play

by Renee Batti

The cover of the April 2 edition of the Almanac featured a photo of Hillview Middle School students raising walls of a bright blue playhouse they had designed and built, under the guidance of woodshop teacher Mike Bratt, as part of the school's week-long, hands-on learning program pioneered in mid-March.

The completed structure was a source of pride to the junior builders, their parents, and their teacher. But what happened to "The House that Hillview Built" — which was pretty much without a practical function on the Menlo Park middle school campus — after it served its instructional purpose?

Thanks to the commitment of some community members to the nonprofit organization Puente, which serves residents of the county's South Coast communities — a largely poor population that includes farmworkers and their families — and the efforts of the students, Mr. Bratt and community volunteers, the structure now sits in the Puente playground in Pescadero.

"Already, the playhouse is a big success," said Kerry Lobel, Puente's executive director. "Seriously, there are children in there from morning until night."

Ms. Lobel said Pescadero has no parks or toddler playgrounds, "so the Puente property is home to a great toddler play structure, and now the fantastic playhouse. ... Many of the children that Puente serves live in small barracks or trailers, so the playhouse seems luxurious."

Barrett Moore, a parent volunteer who helped with the playhouse-building course, said she and other local people are regular supporters of Puente, a resource center that "runs all sorts of creative, educational, vocational and family services."

"The Hillview kids were so great," Ms. Moore said after the playhouse was delivered. "Their ideas and hard work really hit a home run with the little kids at Puente.

"The dog door needed to be explained to them, though. When you live in a labor camp, there is no such thing as a 'dog door.' But once it was explained, they began crawling in and out of it — just as our kids had imagined they would."

Mr. Bratt, along with adult volunteers and students Jacob Richter and Zach de Haff, delivered and installed the playhouse on a recent morning. "The rain of course decided to do its major drop just as we arrived at the community center to start unloading the project," Mr. Bratt said.

"We had lots of adult help, but our two students were right in the thick of things getting soaked and putting the house together."

Mr. Bratt said students in his "House that Hillview Built" mini-course "were completely responsible for the design of the playhouse and for the construction. I acted as the supervisor along with Barrett Moore and Arne Ericson (of Novo Construction in Menlo Park).

"The students were divided into three groups to create their vision of the playhouse. When each group had come up with a design, they had to present it to the rest of the students, and in the end they voted on the design they liked the best. As supervisors, we helped bring some of the ideas back to reality, but that was our only part of the design process."

Mr. Bratt said students were shown how to lay out a wall and "made aware of adjustments that needed to be done to fit the 6x6 limitation." Each group created a set of plans for their wall section, he said, and he designed the base structure, which, for many of the students, was their "first exposure to hammering." But it wasn't their last, and the structure was completed in good order, winning praise from the school community and beyond.

"It is my hope that the students came away with some construction knowledge and a sense of accomplishment, because many of the visitors (who) passed through the room could not believe that students had done almost all of the work," Mr. Bratt said.

"The community support was wonderful, the trailer we used to haul the sections was provided free of charge by Tony Shadle of Shadle Construction, and Arne Ericson gave up a week's worth of his time to help the students understand how to build a playhouse," he said. And without Ms. Moore's help, "the student design part of the project, and all of the details that needed to be done, would have been a nightmare for me."

Ms. Lobel of Puente noted in a written statement that the project "was a partnership between kids in two unique communities built around play. For some of these kids, the playhouse will be larger than their homes."

She said some common questions kids asked about the house were: Will it have a bathroom? Will it have furniture? What is a dog door? And, can I stay overnight?

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