Room to grow

It's 11 a.m. and lunch is beginning at Collinswood Language Academy. Over the course of three hours, almost 800 students will make their way to the cafeteria, file through one serving line, eat and exit. Such precise timing is essential during the lunch period, which is sandwiched between classes that must share the dining space.

"The staff knows the importance of Collinswood time," said Jennifer Pearsall, principal of the Spanish dual-language immersion magnet school. "We have to be synchronized and on time. Our students are extremely well-behaved and understand the rules."

Accommodating 795 students in kindergarten through grade eight isn't easy in a school built in 1959. Collinswood has 23 original classrooms and all the spaces were designed to accommodate elementary students. Now 87 percent over capacity, the school's brick-and-mortar classrooms are outnumbered by mobile units, where middle-school students spend much of their day.

Collinswood leads the project list for the bond request on the Nov. 7 ballot. At no cost to taxpayers, the bond would provide capital funding to build 17 new schools, relieving overcrowding at 20 other schools. Collinswood is among seven of the district's oldest schools that would be replaced. 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 bond-project sites.

A new building would give Collinswood the flexible learning spaces that are essential to 21st-century learning for encouraging collaboration, using technology and hosting multiple learning and teaching styles. It would also expand access to Collinswood, one of the district's most popular and successful magnet programs. The school serves the southern part of Mecklenburg County and has a waiting list of 125 students.

"We are nationally recognized as an effective model for dual language and we close the achievement gap for all students," Pearsall said.

Collinswood operates under less-than-ideal conditions now. A prime example is the band room, where the dimensions and age of the long, narrow space pose seating challenges and safety concerns.

"I have had to get creative with my seating arrangements to fit the students and instruments in the space," said Band Director Bridget Green. "I have had groups of more than 40 kids that need to rehearse together and the space makes that challenging because of the setup and the volume level."

The space is lined from ceiling to floor with sound-dampening panels and the floor has a thin layer of individual carpet squares. Students must sit so close together and so close to the walls that the sound level gets louder than it should be, despite the retrofitting.

9.8.17.Collinswood_inside pic.jpg"The students are also unable to practice the way they perform," Green said. "The setup in the classroom is nothing like the setup on stage for performances. In the classroom, they can't hear all the things they need to hear and when we transition to the stage, they hear completely different things due to the seating arrangement and acoustics."

Storage is also an issue. The band room has storage spaces designed for lunch boxes and coats but it is not adequate for most instruments. Larger instruments are stored on a cabinet by the sink. Green is working to expand resources for elementary general-music classes that also use the room but the walls, one covered by two long air-conditioning/heating consoles, have limited space for added shelving.

"We need appropriate, functional spaces that are designed for the purpose they were intended," Pearsall said. "Here, form does not follow function."

Design work has already begun for a new school. Plans call for 63 classrooms in a two-story building to be located by the Smith Family Center. It will have plenty of room for Collinswood's current programs, as well as for new programs, such as the global studies dance program that began last year. The program incorporates history and culture, and needs space to accommodate demonstrations from visiting artists, such as the Puerto Rican performers who taught students the Taino style of dance.

Staff members are creative in making current spaces work. The media center was updated with grant funds but still is too small to comfortably hold the school's 82 staff members for meetings. And creativity can't produce the full-sized soccer field or full-sized gym where older students can exercise.

"We have big kids doing things in little-kid spaces," Pearsall said.