Sacred education for the 21st century
Private school expands facilities while reducing environmental impact
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, so the saying goes. In this case, from the purchase of 40 acres of land in 1894 has grown Sacred Heart Preparatory of Atherton, which has now doubled the size of its facilities for lower and middle school students.
Students arriving the first week of classes will find 32 new classrooms, a library three times larger than the one they left in the spring, a new 23,000-square-foot performing arts center, and a chapel welcoming them to the lower and middle schools.
Speaking of the library: It was designed as a "net zero" building for electricity and water, meaning that environmental features capture enough of both to make the library self-sustaining in terms of energy consumption.
Wet paint scented the air as the Almanac took a tour of the new facilities. Everywhere you look, environmental considerations influenced design. Wood reclaimed from campus trees cut down over the years reappears as benches. Large classroom windows let in natural light as well as fresh air. Rain falls into tanks that then send the water to gardens; even the parking lot, made of pervious concrete resembling loose gravel frozen in place, contributes to the green motif by preventing runoff.
Construction went smoothly. "I don't think we had any surprises on this side," said Sandy Dubinsky, operations manager. She chuckled and recalled a time when renovations on the other side of campus some time ago uncovered a full oil tank dating back to the 1800s, buried in the dirt.
Every classroom is different. Slabs of mismatched stone form countertops along the sides; the school selected the blocks from leftover remnants at marble yards. Desk chairs start out miniature, in rainbow colors, for lower grades, and then graduate to "big kid" chairs all in black starting in sixth grade to convey a sense of increasing academic seriousness, according to Ms. Dubinsky.
Music teacher Kelly Leistikow talked while unpacking instruments for her new classroom, which includes built-in recording capabilities to allow students to play back their sessions. "Science and math need creativity," she said. "There is a discipline here — the kids are going to know their musical alphabet. But once they know it, it's 'what are you going to do with that?'"
Funding for the facilities came from a five-year capital campaign raising $101 million that also went toward faculty support, endowment and other budget items. To make room, the 57-year-old buildings of St. Joseph's School were torn down, and the campus has now been unified under a single name: Sacred Heart Schools.
A few figures on campus are familiar with both the old and the new.
"I still believe in reading books and holding them," said Sister Nancy Morris, who served as director of schools for 18 years. That followed two decades as a teacher who drew upon classics such as Ivanhoe and Dante's Divine Comedy to illuminate the Middle Ages for her students.
Her time at Sacred Heart included overseeing the transition to co-ed high school classes and the closure of the boarding school in 1984. That presented challenges large and small. Sister Morris described searching for a way to make the blue ribbons handed out as prizes palatable to boys. "I watched 'War and Peace' one night, starring Anthony Hopkins. And there was Napoleon wearing a ribbon," she said. "So I told them: 'Boys, this began in the army!'"
The ribbon tradition continues even as the campus adapts to 21st century education, a transition with a new set of challenges. Sister Morris shared the background of how one Sacred Heart School in Seattle came to ban computers and social technology on a Wednesday during Lent: A student, unable to articulate a difficult situation, could describe it to the principal only via text messages. On the local campus, the school blocks access to Facebook, and prohibits cellphone use within classrooms.
Change is nothing new to the nuns of Sacred Heart, however. They took to heart the Second Vatican Council's exhortation in the 1960s to "update your habits," Sister Morris said. "We chose to be apostolic and be out there with the people ... but also to continue the strong educational thrust that marked the schools."
That thrust remains the backbone of the Sacred Heart system, guiding the changes that have recently come to campus. Replacing the older model of lecture followed by homework, the high school mathematics classes on campus now reflect the "flip model": Teachers can load lectures on YouTube for students to watch the night before coming to class; once in the classroom, the emphasis is on understanding the material through collaboration, according to Director of Communications Millie Lee.
Students at the lower and middle schools start implementing technology within the classroom by using tablets to share projects and discuss each other's assignments under the guidance of their teachers.
"For me, working here, these buildings were designed, constructed and (are) now occupied with (21st century learning) in mind," said middle school instructor Jennifer Lettieri, during a break from a teacher training session on using Google to share documents within the classroom. "It's not just a question of passing on what they need to know, but also asking them, 'what are you discovering?'"
Her students — "digital natives!" — will be able to bring skills they use for social media into working together in the classroom, she said. The spacious new rooms, at 900 square feet, provide enough space to create museum exhibits, while the windows let students passing by outside peek in at projects under way.
"I feel really lucky and really excited about the changes that are coming," Ms. Lettieri said. "It's a real path-bridging time for us here."