Some people have questioned the wisdom of the colorless walls that will surround Hillview Middle School students when they return to campus on Sept. 4, according to Laura Rich, president of the Menlo Park City School District board.
"But when the kids are here, they're the color," she said. Indicating the Menlo Park campus' physical environment with a sweep of her arm, she added, "This should be the backdrop for the kids."
Those kids — an estimated 810 of them — will be the beneficiaries of the $51.6 million project, begun in summer 2010, to completely transform the campus at Elder and Santa Cruz avenues. Although passers-by can easily observe that construction work is continuing at high pitch, Ms. Rich and Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's facilities director, state with confidence that all the new buildings needed to operate the school will be ready by opening day.
The district embarked on the massive project primarily to address a student population that was soaring above projections at the lowest grade levels in its three other schools: Oak Knoll in Menlo Park, and Laurel and Encinal in Atherton. With the successful passage of a bond measure, planning began so that the district's only middle school would be able to accommodate the higher number of students as they entered sixth grade.
The new campus, with 85,000 square feet of new facilities, was designed to accommodate up to 1,000 students, Mr. Sheikholeslami said. It has six new buildings; each is two-story and connected by walkways on the second-floor level. The only building that remains from the old campus is the gym, which doubled as a multipurpose room — no longer needed for that role with the campus addition of a spacious performing arts auditorium.
As construction crews work overtime to complete the exteriors of the buildings — interior work on the classrooms and the library is finished — the district is gearing up for an Aug. 28 grand opening celebration at 10 a.m.
Work on the fields, which will be built where the old Hillview buildings once stood, should be completed by year's end, Ms. Rich said.
She and Mr. Sheikholeslami led an Almanac reporter and a photographer on a recent tour of the campus as work crews buzzed around them, focused on the approaching deadline.
A grand space
On a campus with facilities that would be the envy of most if not all school districts in the state, Hillview's performing arts auditorium may be one of a kind at a middle school. The tallest building on campus, it greets visitors using the main school entrance on Elder Avenue, and will be available for community use when school's not in session, Ms. Rich said.
With sophisticated lighting and sound systems, the auditorium has retractable seating for 318, and space for another 100 chairs. It includes a proscenium stage, and acoustically treated walls and ceilings.
In addition to a grand performing arts space, the building houses music, choir and drama rooms, including practice rooms, on the first floor. There's also a broadcast studio with a mixing room and a classroom area for teaching and digital editing.
The building also houses nine spacious science rooms on the second floor with a sophisticated ventilation system, special chemical-resistant epoxy counters, and a common science prep area.
Library with a view
The school's new library is considerably more sophisticated and functional than the old facility, which consisted of one room with tables and chairs and no separate rooms for small groups of students, Ms. Rich said.
It's on the second floor of the administration building, and overlooks a central courtyard that will serve as a tree-shaded commons.
The new library includes small, window-fronted rooms for groups of students, a librarian classroom, and a computer lab that can be walled off when needed.
"It's a library of the future," Mr. Sheikholeslami said, noting that all shelving is on wheels so that in later years, if physical books become less necessary, the fixtures can be removed and the space given over to other functions. The library, he noted, was designed with flexibility in mind.
Below the library, the principal and administrative staff are housed in a light-filled space. Like the auditorium, the administration office is situated near the Elder Avenue entrance to the campus, and large windows give staff a view of both arriving campus visitors and the courtyard.
Designed for learning
All classrooms have WiFi and smartboards. The desks are designed to be easily moved to form circles or other shapes for collaborative learning — a key component of modern classroom learning, Ms. Rich said.
The school's industrial arts classroom also is designed for 21st century needs. In addition to standard tables for hands-on work, it includes a "clean" computer area where students are taught computer-assisted design, known as CAD.
Adjacent to that room is the art studio; both classrooms share an outdoor area, where industrial arts students can work on projects and arts students have access to a kiln.
A green approach
The walls of the new facilities may be white, but the buildings and surrounding areas are decidedly green, Ms. Rich and Mr. Sheikholeslami noted throughout the tour.
There are obvious features: rooms that automatically light up when people enter thanks to motion sensors, solar shades on the sides of buildings that will reduce temperatures inside, flooring made with recycled materials.
The number of solar panels on the roof is "shy enough" to make the system cost-neutral, Mr. Sheikholeslami said, but there's enough capacity to add more panels if PG&E changes its policy and starts paying for the overflow energy generated.
Classroom air quality is maintained with sophisticated monitoring systems, and there's an "economizer" system in place that uses outdoor air to cool the rooms when the outdoor temperature is lower than inside.
Landscaping is designed to economize on water use, and storm water is collected on site.
Budgeted contingency funds were tapped into to ensure that the campus was ready to welcome students on schedule. But Ms. Rich emphasized that the project is "on time and on budget."
"We wanted to open on Sept. 4, and we will open on Sept. 4," she said. "Everything is where we wanted it to be at this point."
When Ms. Rich ran for re-election in 2010, her children had already left the district's schools. But she decided to seek one more term anyway.
"I was board president in 2006, when we went out for the bond," she said, adding that she had promised the school community that the funds would be used efficiently and responsibly.
Hillview was the last of the schools to get a facelift and new life. "It was important for me not to leave without seeing it through," she said of the middle school project. "This is a school that the community will be proud of."
OPEN HOUSE: The public is invited to a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Hillview Middle School campus from 10 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28. The event starts in the new auditorium. Tours will follow. The school is located at 1100 Elder Ave. at Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park.