Will the 21st century campus pay off?When visitors walk up to the new Hillview Middle School campus on Elder and Santa Cruz avenues in Menlo Park, they could be forgiven if they thought they were stepping into an upscale office complex.
The school's exotic appearance, with louvers shading the two-story facade facing Santa Cruz Avenue, is the first clue that this is no ordinary middle school. Rather, this is a 21st century learning machine where 800 students will benefit from rooms full of advanced technology not found in other schools in the state.
A stroll inside the 85,000-square-foot-campus will reveal classrooms packed with technology, including interactive smartboards, Wi-Fi to stay in touch with the outside world, and desks that can easily be moved so students can collaborate on projects, a key factor in modern classroom learning. The six two-story buildings are all connected by upper-deck walkways, and across the way is a magnificent performing arts auditorium with state-of-the art lighting and sound systems, and retractable seating for more than 300 students. A proscenium stage and acoustically treated walls round out the picture.
And then there is the second-floor library that overlooks a central, soon-to-be tree-shaded courtyard/commons. The library includes rooms large enough for small groups of students, a classroom for the librarian and a computer lab that can be closed off if necessary. Even the bookshelves on wheels play into a future strategy. If hardcover books give way to electronic tablets, the wheeled shelves can be relocated and the space given over to another use.
One of the most interesting rooms is the space set aside for industrial arts, which includes traditional work tables but also a "clean" computer area where students learn computer-assisted-design, or CAD.
But will all the technology gadgets push Hillview's high-achieving students to even greater academic accomplishments, or prove to be a distraction that will take away their traditional edge over their peers on statewide tests?
Incoming Principal Erik Burmeister acknowledges the challenge, but told the Almanac that "21st century teaching isn't about technology; it's about how to get kids to think." With technology helping learners find information more efficiently, education's focus should be about "moving a kid's learning from just knowledge, to creativity and collaboration. (21st century learning) is about the ability to take what we learn from teachers and the Internet ... and then do something with it."
The challenge for Hillview students will be how to avoid all the distractions that can come with coddling a smart phone or table computer throughout the school day. Wi-Fi-enabled devices will open portals to basic research in seconds that just a few years ago meant a tedious and time-consuming trip to the library. Smartboards will provide an added dimension to interactive learning for both teachers and students. Classes in CAD will give students a real-world skill as well as an understanding of architecture and drafting.
In 2006, more than 70 percent of Menlo Park City School District voters approved a $91 million bond issue that paid for major upgrades to all district schools. At Hillview, the decision was made to tear down some relatively new classrooms, even though taxpayers would continue to pay off the bonds for some 18 years.
Now the job is nearly complete — the playing fields will be finished by the end of the year — the true test will begin on Sept. 4, when students will finally get to try out their new home.