Moving into 21st-century learning

Montclaire Elementary was built in 1958 as a small, neighborhood school. Over the years, the student population has changed but much of the school building has not. The 59-year-old school does not adequately accommodate its 500 students or provide the 21st-century education they need.

Lack of space is one of the biggest problems facing Montclaire. Some teachers must share mobile units and storage areas are nonexistent. The school has 19 brick-and-mortar classrooms and 14 mobile units, which house the second and third grades.

"We can't fit all our homerooms in the building – there's no room," said Principal Leora Itzhaki. "The mobiles are smaller than the inside classrooms – you lose about a third of the space – but then mobiles are supposed to be temporary."

"I think it would be great to have a new school," said fifth-grader Nayeli Diaz Pastrana. "Some of the rooms feel kind of tight."

The school's largest space is the cafeteria, which does not provide enough room for the full student body. The stage doubles as a storage room, although most large events are held across the street at the Family Life Center of St. Andrew's United Methodist Church.

"If there's more than one grade participating, we have to go to the church," said Assistant Principal Kim King. "We can't accommodate the kids and their parents."

Montclaire is high on the project list for the bond request on the Nov. 7 ballot. The bond would provide capital funding to build 17 new schools, including a 45-classroom building for Montclaire. The new schools would relieve overcrowding at 20 other schools and replace seven of the district's oldest schools. The bond would also provide funding for renovations or additions at 12 more schools and would reduce the number of students in mobile classrooms at the 29 project sites.

Joan Eynon teaches a science lab in one of the mobile units and is happy to have a room of her own. However, being outside the main building presents challenges and limitations.

"It is difficult to be located so far from running water," Eynon said. "Quite often, we make the trek with buckets into the building to have running water to carry out experiments. The same trek takes place when we need ice for experiments. The mobile classrooms do not have the capacity to run a small freezer, so we are limited in what we can do."

The space crunch is an everyday problem in the cafeteria, especially at breakfast time when the line backs up and students are late for class, said fifth-grader Elisa Sanabria Monoy.

"We need to make it bigger," Elisa said.

In addition to more square footage, a new building would give Montclaire the flexible learning spaces that are essential to 21st-century learning. Flexible spaces encourage collaboration and the use of technology, while hosting multiple learning and teaching styles.

Fifth-grade teacher Sean O'Leary moved to Montclaire last year from a much newer school. He said a blank slate of open, flexible space would boost what he could provide his students.

"I came here because I wanted to feel like I was making more of an impact, but there were lots of things I missed right away," O'Leary said. "We don't have things like tutoring rooms and there's not a lot of room for the kids to move around. There also aren't enough electrical outlets and they are only in certain places, which limits the use of technology."

Despite the building's limitations, teaching and learning remains constant at Montclaire. Itzhaki moved to the school this year and said she is working with possibly the most dedicated teachers she has ever met.

"If a child needs something, they find a way to get it," Itzhaki said. "We do the best we can with what we have – that's an educator mindset – but these are our kids. They deserve a modern place to learn."