New Menlo Park school gives district breathing room


It was Oct. 13, a Thursday afternoon, three and half days before 300 elementary school students were supposed to move into the new Laurel School Upper Campus in the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park, and clearly it wasn't going to happen.

In the classrooms of the third-through-fifth-grade public school, teacher -- surrounded by dozens and dozens of boxes that needed unpacking -- arranged desks and chairs, tacked posters on walls and filled bookshelves. The location of trucks bearing classroom furniture for several teachers was unclear.

In the library, books were being moved from boxes onto nearly empty shelves.

Near each classroom door, rows of hooks waited for backpacks.

Outside, the parking lot was roped off. Hard-hatted workers were planting trees that would form two rows leading to the building's main entrance. A plaque saying the flagpole in front of the school had been there since 1957, when the original O'Connor School was built, was being positioned.

Workers in a huge lift were installing windows on a second story room that would house one of Upper Laurel's two STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) labs.

Stacks of construction materials littered the covered outdoor eating and activity area. Carpet was being laid, linoleum installed and baseboards tacked in.

Cut to 10:30 a.m. Monday, Oct. 17.

The parking lot is open. More than 70 trees have been planted, and flags are flying on the historic flagpole. Bikes fill most of the bike racks.

The joyful noise of children at play comes from the blacktop area, where kids are rolling hoops through puddles and shooting basketballs. A white board reminds students of some school rules, and students draw and play games on tables in the covered outdoor area.

There's still a pile of dirt where the new school's playing field will be, once winter rains nourish grass yet to be seeded. Weekend rains delayed installing the rubber surface that goes under the play equipment, and there are still workmen in the gymnasium/auditorium/theater, the music room and one of the STEAM rooms.

But outside classrooms, backpacks occupy the backpack pegs.

The library shelves are filled.

As recess ends, children file back into their classrooms through a central atrium. Sunlight streams into a nearly three-story space through a row of high windows built into garage door mechanisms that automatically open to allow heat out and cool breezes in.

It's not clear how they did it, but the construction site of Thursday afternoon has been transformed to the ordinary, organized chaos of a 300-student elementary school.

Alleviating a squeeze

A 40 percent enrollment increase over 11 years pushed Menlo Park City School District schools to the bursting point. Portables and new classrooms, and a whole new Hillview Middle School, helped, but more students kept arriving.

Finally, the district decided to reclaim a site leased since 1991 to the German-American International School. Passage of a $23 million bond measure, approved by more than 75 percent of the voters in 2013, financed most of the cost of the new school.

The district says the project's total cost is about $31.2 million, including $25.6 in construction costs. Developer fees and capital improvement funds also are paying the bills.

The new school, for third- through fifth-graders, gives room to both Laurel School Lower Campus and Encinal School. Previously students in the Laurel School attendance area went to Laurel from kindergarten through third grade and then to Encinal for fourth and fifth grades.

Because delays in getting state approval for plans postponed the construction start date, students who now fill both Laurel campuses had been squeezed together on the lower campus since Sept. 1.

The school is designed to be energy-efficient while meeting teachers' wishes for collaborative spaces that fit on a small and irregular site. Classrooms are in sets of twos or threes, connected by wide sliding doors which double as marker boards.

The school is also designed so it could be used in the future as a kindergarten to fifth grade school if needs change.

Flexible classroom furniture, much of it on casters, allows students to work standing or sitting in chairs that rock to accommodate fidgeters.

A huge screen rolls down at one end of the atrium so the whole school can gather for presentations.

Principal Linda Creighton says despite some glitches, there were signs all would go well on the school's first day. That Monday, as administrators waited to greet the arriving students for the first time, a rainbow appeared overhead.

To learn more about the school buildings' features, read this report.

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