As public schools ponder facility fixes, St. Joe's reaps benefits of fundraising campaigns

As public schools ponder facility fixes, St. Joe's reaps benefits of fundraising campaigns

Michele Ellson

Photos courtesy of St. Joseph Notre Dame High School.

When Simon Chiu became principal of St. Joseph Notre Dame High School six years ago, the school’s gymnasium was in the midst of a makeover. The gym, which visitors enter after passing a case full of basketball trophies and a display honoring St. Joe’s alum and professional basketballer Jason Kidd, boasts electronic pullout seating, ceiling baffling to blunt noise and a gleaming wood floor.

“Everything short of the concrete is brand new,” Chiu told a reporter during a late September tour. “Other schools can’t get over how bright it is in there.”

The gym redo is just one piece of a $13 million renovation and expansion that has been taking place at the school over the past decade. The upgrades commenced with renovations to the school’s library and a music room and continued with the construction of a new science center and renovations to the school’s gym; over the past two summers, the school rebuilt all of its classrooms.

“It wasn’t just carpet and paint. It was everything brand new,” Chiu said. “There is no learning space that is older than eight years old.”

The upgrades are designed to create a more comfortable – and modern – learning environment at the 131-year-old, 423-student Catholic high school. They are also intended to work hand in hand with the school’s efforts in integrate technology more deeply into students’ learning – efforts that have placed classroom materials, grades and more just a keystroke away. This year, the school mandated that students bring their own laptops; the school has its own wireless network.

While Alameda’s public schools are struggling with $92 million in needed facilities upgrades, St. Joe’s embarked on a fundraising campaign to collect the money the school needed for its makeover. In contrast to the school’s new gymnasium, Alameda High School’s Larry Patton Gym, which a reporter toured over the summer, offers rotting floors, 1970s-era lighting and single-pane windows covered by hand-cranked curtains – items the school district may not have the money to fix.

Schools leaders are slated to discuss their priorities and options for funding public school repairs this fall; funding options identified by a consultant include seeking out state funding, raising parcel taxes, forming philanthropic partnerships and asking voters to approve a bond for making the fixes – or helping to pay for some new schools.

Chiu said St. Joe’s raised the money it needed from foundations and parents, alumni and friends of the school, earning some small contributions from the St. Joe’s parish and pulling from the school’s reserves. He said the school is “kind of investing in ourselves” and that the upgrades make students feel like they are important and that they are being invested in, too.

“I believe it is important to deliver a relevant education on all levels. Bringing the campus up to date is a key component,” said Carol Baskett, a parent of a St. Joe’s graduate and a current student and a donor to the school’s fundraising campaign. “SJND is a strong competitor in the area and the new classrooms show potential families that SJND is academically focused.”

The effort may be no more apparent than in the school’s recently renovated classrooms, paid for by a “Smart Classrooms” campaign that helped the school raise $4 million to rebuild classrooms. In addition to fresh paint, frosted dual-pane windows and tiled carpets that can be replaced on a square-by-square basis, the school’s classrooms feature wall-mounted whiteboards, plenty of outlets and in-ceiling LCD projectors complete with speakers.

The classrooms are furnished with lightweight desks that can be configured however teachers see fit, and teachers’ desks are built to house cords for all of their classroom tech.

The campus’ neatly-manicured courtyard is lined with freshly painted benches, new drinking fountains and tidy rows of blue lockers, and its library – redone during one of the early phases of construction – houses a conference and a study room and rows of laptop-friendly tables. The school’s cafeteria was refurbished as well, with the same ceiling baffling as the gym in order to reduce noise.

Marianist Hall, which received some of the campus’ most recent renovations, houses an attic art studio with track lighting that allow the school’s art teacher to customize the amount of light being used, an electronic “smart board” in place of a manual chalkboard and the LCD projector, which allows students to all get the same detailed view of brushstrokes and more. Downstairs is a graphic arts computer lab lined with wide Macintosh screens and others that allow teacher Andy McKee to keep tabs on what each student is doing.

“We’re training these kids to use the tools they use in college,” McKee said.

Across the street lies the Anthony V. Aiello Science Center, a new, two-floor facility named after a longtime St. Joe’s principal that cost $8 million to build and was opened with $250,000 worth of new science equipment. Chiu said that former students who come back for a visit say the school’s facilities are better than the ones they had at college; the school created and hosts the Diocese of Oakland’s science fair, which last year drew hundreds of seventh and eighth graders from 44 schools.

“I’ve had five years in this building, 20 years (at St. Joe’s) total. I still think to myself, ‘Wow. This is a great space,’” said James Fong, whose science classroom has its own document camera, a wireless microphone for lecturing and extra storage behind its whiteboard.

Chiu said the facilities changes and the school’s increased use of technology have allowed students to be more collaborative and active learners, and to allow students to take more control of their own learning.

“As one teacher told me, she feels that she's no longer just a ‘grading machine,’” Chiu said. “She can actually get kids to be more active in their learning, create more original student work products and get students to collaborate with each other more, all skills they will need to succeed in college and in their careers.”

And he said having technology integrated into classrooms – instead of bringing it in on an ad hoc basis – eliminates setup time and reserves those critical minutes for instruction.

The technology also allows the school to try some out-of-the-box teaching approaches. In addition to offering block schedules that have students taking longer – but fewer – classes each day, McKee said he provides “flipped” instruction, which allows students to do their learning online and their homework during class time, with an instructor on hand to help out.

Parents said they like the changes they're seeing at the school.

“As a parent I’m thrilled that my sons have been able to take advantage of the state of the art features the smart classrooms provide,” Baskett said. “My younger son is a visual learner and the projectors in the classrooms allow the teachers to expand their presentations in a way that is relevant to students.”

Kris Venturini’s two children came to St. Joe’s after attending public elementary and middle schools. Venturini said the upgraded facilities were one of the determining factors in the family’s “very difficult decision” about where to send their eldest child to high school.

“In this fast moving world, I can tell my kids are staying up to date with the latest science and technology (hands on),” Venturini said, adding that her son feels “more organized” with notes and assignments online, instead of on sheets of paper.

Rod Obligacion graduated from St. Joe’s in 1989 and his eldest son, Sean, is a sophomore at the school now. “They have a lot more resources now than when I went there,” said Obligacion, who said he hopes to send his other children to St. Joe’s “and not some of the other schools that are cutting programs.”

He said the school’s online tools – Moodle, which Chiu described as an “online locker” that can contain course materials, and PowerSchool, an online student management system that tracks attendance and grades – allow students to gain instant access to teachers and classroom materials and parents to keep an eye on their students’ progress.

In addition to limiting distractions, the new classrooms put kids literally on the same page, he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything lost in translation now – the teacher puts it up, and students understand what needs to get done,” Obligacion said.