By JEN COWART Special to the Herald State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green and several representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Education recently visited Eden Park Elementary School's new Learning Community, the district's "model
Special to the Herald
State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green and several representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Education recently visited Eden Park Elementary School’s new Learning Community, the district’s “model home” of school construction projects in Cranston.
The Eden Park Learning Community project was a whirlwind, two-month demolition and construction project of the intermediate wing, known as the Pathfinder Project. It took place during the summer of 2019 and is a place for the Cranston community to see exactly what Cranston Public Schools has in mind for all of its construction and renovation projects going forward. The school has already received international accolades for its innovative design and its impact on how teachers teach, and how students learn.
In 2018 Fielding Nair International – now Fielding International, or FI – came on board to help Cranston with the school designs for its five-year plan, which would involve renovating several spaces in schools all over the city, as well as building two completely new elementary schools, Garden City and Gladstone, while capitalizing on the state’s reimbursement incentive plan for capital improvements in schools. The plans submitted to the RIDE must not only include the traditional “warm, safe, and dry” improvements like a new roof or windows, but also must include concepts of educational innovation in order to receive the maximum amount of reimbursement possible.
“The can had been kicked down the road for far too long,” Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said. “We could no longer continue to do things the way they’d been done. We had school buildings that needed millions and millions of dollars in repairs of things that wouldn’t even touch our students’ educational needs. It would have been financially irresponsible to do things any other way than how we’re doing them now.”
While at Eden Park, Infante-Green recognized Ed Collins, the district’s chief of facilities management and capital projects, with a certificate from the Rhode Island Board of Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education honoring him as the “2021 Facility Innovator-Leader.”
Collins’s philosophy of school construction emphasizes the relationship between the school buildings and teaching and learning. He brought that philosophy with him to Cranston, stressing the importance of spending money on renovations that impact education – and, while still wrapping in the traditional capital expenditures on things like a new roof or windows, not making those repairs the focus of a district’s building plans. He’s grateful to the team in Cranston trusting in him to help implement these changes in the city.
Cranston’s bond, the largest school construction bond in the state’s 2020 election, was for $147 million dollars and spans five years of design development and construction. It passed with a 74 percent approval rate in the midst of a global pandemic. However, as important as the design and development of the buildings can be, Collins told Infante-Green last week it’s what takes place before and after a building reopens that matters even more.
During the visit with Infante-Green, both Collins and Eden Park Principal Courtney Sevigny stressed the importance of consistent involvement of staff and students from the very beginning in the design of the educational spaces and the furniture. They also highlighted the inclusion of professional development for teachers during the year before and the year after facilities work.
“If you’re just going to open the doors of the new building and then go back to teaching in square classrooms with rows of desks, then you’ve missed the whole point,” Collins said. “This is all new for our teachers and we are teaching them how to teach in these new spaces and how to use all the new technology.”
He used an analogy for the group that put things on a more relatable level. “You can’t hand someone the keys to a Maserati and expect them to be able to drive it if they’ve never learned to drive a standard. You have to teach them before you hand them the keys. Our secret to our success is in the whole year before when we’re teaching them how to best use these spaces.”
Cranston’s new schools and educational spaces will include the most up-to-date health and safety standards, HVAC systems now designed for COVID-19 and beyond, and high-security features, but it’s the educational spaces that matter most, according to Collins and his colleagues in the school department.
Eden Park is a showcase of learning spaces that are adaptable for a wide variety of learning modalities, such as whole class instruction, peer tutoring, independent study, student collaboration, small group instruction, distance learning student presentations, performance learning, seminar-style instruction and more.
One of the modalities involves social-emotional learning, and one of the spaces that teachers and school administration pushed for at Eden Park was a sensory room where students could decompress if they were struggling with their emotions while learning in the larger spaces. However, according to Sevigny, that space is now mostly used by the students in the primary wing of the school, which is still a traditional learning environment for a little while longer. That fact is just one piece of the evidence that the innovative school designs the district’s leadership team is bringing into Cranston are working.
While the teachers at Eden Park had previously been apprehensive about throwing away their “treasures” that had accumulated in their traditional classroom for years, they now tell Collins they’d never go back to that way of teaching again. Their fears of “open classrooms” turned out to be never realized, as their classrooms had walls and windows and doors, and their love of their new teaching spaces can’t be beat. So much so that they’ve already told him he has to find another way for them to be able to teach during the construction of the rest of Eden Park that doesn’t involve them going back to a traditional square classroom learning space ever again.
“I’d never go back to being confined and limited by four walls,” fourth-grade teacher Danielle Alger said when she saw Infante-Green at the school. “And I was adamant I couldn’t let go of all of my things. But, I’d never want to do it that way again.”
At the conclusion of her visit, Infante-Green told Collins, “We want to honor you for the work that you’ve done because it’s not just about space, but it’s exactly what you said – it’s about changing education, and we appreciate everything