'A new way to go'

As school year nears, innovative changes taking shape at Eden Park

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Since just before the conclusion of the school year, construction has been proceeding on the intermediate wing of Eden Park Elementary School.

According to Ed Collins, chief of facilities management and capital projects for Cranston Public Schools, the Eden Park project was chosen by education planning and architectural design firm Fielding Nair International, or FNI, as one that could serve as the Pathfinder Project for the school district – a model home of sorts, and a blueprint for how Cranston should proceed with improvements to its school buildings.

“We’ve been spending $3 million or $4 million on school buildings every summer, not enhancing learning spaces, not enhancing teacher collaboration, not enhancing student engagement and collaboration. Nothing has been done to improve anything educational in any of our buildings,” Collins said.

He added: “We can’t address solely the roofs and windows, so we brought in FNI to go through and evaluate every building. They went through them in the mornings with the administration and addressed the inefficiencies of the buildings, and in the afternoons they met with the students and the teachers. During the evening community meetings, they met with community partners and parents.”

The result is a plan put forth to totally rethink how schools should be renovated moving forward, looking at buildings differently while still incorporating the roofs and windows, but addressing what teaching and learning environments should look like for a 21st-century education.

Additionally, the planned school improvements are meant capitalize on Rhode Island Department of Education construction and renovation incentives for safe, innovative classrooms and schools, maximizing the state reimbursement rate from 52 cents on the dollar to close to 70 percent.

Eden Park was chosen by FNI for many reasons, including the footprint of the space and the ability to renovate beginning prior to the end of the school year without needing to relocate staff and students to an entirely different “swing space.”

According to Collins, the firm can also spot a school community that is ready to take on a totally different teaching and learning environment or which may already be trying to work innovatively.

“FNI has the ability to go into classrooms and buildings and identify the teachers that are trying to do this type of work already but are inhibited by the space,” Collins said. “They walked into Eden Park and said right away, ‘This is the space.’”

According to Collins, the teachers were involved in the design of the space from the start.

“We asked them what they were trying to do and what we could do to support that,” he said. “They were involved before the first nail even went in.”

Eden Park Principal Courtney Sevigny agreed, noting that feedback from teachers actually led to changes in the original design.

In addition to including the staff in the design process, Collins emphasized that the support for their work did not end there. Professional development was provided midyear and will continue, training staff in how to best utilize the new space.

“We will continue to give them support for that as time goes on,” he said.

Sevigny and her staff have been grateful for the ability to be involved from the start and for the support that they’ve been given all the way through.

“This has been very powerful for the teachers,” she said. “They came to us with a plan and said, ‘What do you need or what don’t you need with this plan?’ And it was very powerful for them to be able to impact the design.”

“The cookie-cutter school process was thrown out from day one,” Collins said. “Normally, schools contain very segregated spaces. Now, this new wing will support any type of [individualized education program], disability or other services without needing to separate students and staff. This will help to bring special education services back into the regular building.”

Sevigny agreed, noting that the entire team of special educators was involved in the process.

“Shawmut has been the construction management on the job, Jacobs is the project manager and FNI has designed the space and they’ve been great to work with,” Collins said. “We are doing a $9 million project in two months’ time, and it’s a crazy project, sometimes difficult, but they’ve all been great.”

The renovations at Eden Park include a new front entrance and all-new security, as well as the changes to the intermediate wing.

“It’ll be a much more welcoming entrance and foyer area with space for student artwork to be displayed,” Collins said. “The bathrooms will be all single-occupant bathrooms. There will be no more hallway space, no more dead space. Every space will be part of a learning space. The hallway has been turned into a Learning Commons. There will still be classrooms, but they’ll be flexible spaces for flexible numbers of students. All of the teachers will have collaborative spaces and work stations.”

Collins noted that the space will be able to support all 20 of the identified learning modalities – independent study, peer tutoring, one-on-one with teacher, team collaboration, class lecture, project-based learning, distance learning, learning with mobile technology, student presentation, internet-based research, seminar-style instruction, performance learning, interdisciplinary study, naturalist learning, art-based learning, social-emotional learning, design-based learning, storytelling in a circle, team learning/teaching and play/movement learning.

“Every child will have the ability to learn and every space will support and provide more options. If we can do one thing at the end of the day, we want to enhance student engagement, and we’re going to do more than that,” he said.

Sevigny said planning for the upcoming school year has been done in a completely different way.

“Scheduling has been completely different. We are planning for morning meetings and for how teachers will work and collaborate together and how students will move through these spaces depending on their needs,” she said. “For the first time, we’re really focusing on the K-5 population in order to prepare them for the middle school and high school pathways programs and innovative learning. In June, we planned our first project-based plan for September in order to best utilize the new space. Even that looks different. We had to relearn and rethink.”

The learning spaces will include the newest in educational technology, utilizing tools such as projection screens, Walltalkers and screens that can be used vertically and then fold to be used flat as a tabletop device.

The building will also be a “smart building” – with air conditioning that automatically shuts off if the windows are open, for example – and will have windows that can provide natural light and fresh air, two of the top requests from the student focus groups last spring. The new space will also include learning studios and a maker lab.

According to Collins, this is the last two-month project the district will undertake in this fashion. She was grateful for the cooperation of the administration, staff and students through all of the changes, especially during the time just before the conclusion of the school year when the construction first began.

“Everything from here on in requires a swing space for relocating the students and staff,” he said. “The bond which is being voted on in 2020 includes finishing the rest of Eden Park, building a whole new Gladstone Elementary School, redoing Garden City School, and doing work on some of the middle and high schools.”

Collins looks forward to the opening of Eden Park for the new school year and is hopeful for the community’s support for the new thinking in school renovations for the Cranston Public Schools.

“This is a new way to go through the schools, focusing on their educational value,” he said. “There will be no more Band-Aid approach.” 

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