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School Tests Some Twists : Innovations Range From Playground to Classrooms

Times Staff Writer

Bespectacled Ben Bartlett, an authority of sorts on these types of things, was ready to pass judgment on the playground at the brand new Knob Hill Elementary School in San Marcos.

Bartlett, seemingly undistracted by all the kindergarten kids running and playing in the huge sandbox, pointed first to the youngsters playing directly beneath a nifty climb-and-slide contraption big enough to handle a dozen kids at once.

“If you dig too deep in the sand there,” he said, “it gets hard. You need a little shovel.

“And I think the whole thing could be a little bigger,” he said, nodding in approval of his own assessment.

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So, how good is this playground sandbox, overall?

‘It’s Not Great and It’s Not Bad

Bartlett assertively stood to within a couple of inches of the visitor, and looked a mite serious. “I’d say it’s not great and it’s not bad. It’s medium. The one I have at home is better. It’s got monkey bars.”

With that, Bartlett, age 5 (“Make that 5 and a half!”), excused himself. Play time was a wastin’.

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And, though a good playground does not a school make, the $50,000 in sandboxes and playground equipment at Knob Hill seems to have won consensus approval of its users and abusers. Moreover, it reflects the kind of new-and-improved planning that went into the new elementary school campus that was designed, in the end, to make kids smarter.

If a classroom is a classroom is a classroom, San Marcos officials have taken the basics one step further at Knob Hill, where there is a sort of bonus, unassigned mini-classroom serving as a hub in each of the school’s four-classroom pods.

There, officials say, is the real secret of Knob Hill, and, if it’s not exciting to students, it is to teachers.

In most schools, small groups of children are huddled in the corners of classrooms for special projects or reading instruction, where they can

bother--or be bothered by--their classmates.

At Knob Hill, however, groups of students needing special attention or deserving of accelerated instruction are excused to soundproofed, so-called “middle rooms,” where they can work with aides or specialists without being a distraction to others.

“It’s a more progressive approach then just putting boxes in a row,” district Supt. Mac Bernd says of the “middle rooms.” “And, overall, it will increase student learning.”

The middle rooms represent the newest generation of school design; 15 years ago, contemporary school designs featured open space where classrooms literally had no walls, or used accordion walls that could be opened for more expansiveness.

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“But the accordion walls were not soundproof, and the noise in one classroom was too easily heard in the adjoining classroom” Bernd noted. “In classrooms with no walls, we had teachers stacking books and boxes to form their own little walls.”

Other novelties at the school include a multipurpose room, still under construction, with a huge upward-sliding door-wall allowing events to spill outdoors, and a “passive playground” with stepped seating for students to sit quietly, eat snacks and attend outdoor classroom sessions.

The stucco, blue-and-gray school features architectural accents of gables and arches, looking not too unlike storefronts along an 1800s town of the Old West or somewhat like the “It’s a Small World” attraction at Disneyland. The entry driveway looks at first blush to be constructed of red tile, but is in fact stamped, red concrete. At the front of the school is a 30-foot open-air tower, looking like a belfry without a bell. The bell may come later, Bernd says.

On paper, the school stands out for other reasons, too.

- It was built in 6 1/2 months, contrasted with a more typical yearlong construction timetable. The “fast-track” construction was allowed because the school intentionally included relocatable classrooms, a technical criterion that allowed a contractor to be hired even before the state had approved the design plan. The day after the state approved the architectural plans, ground was broken.

- The city of San Marcos contributed $800,000 toward construction of the school, partly so its playgrounds could double as a neighborhood park for public use.

- The balance of the school’s construction cost of about $5 million is being paid by developers building homes in San Marcos. The school district sold certificates of participation to investors, not unlike municipal bonds, that will be repaid over 15 years as developers pay impact fees to the school district as their share of public works in San Marcos.

Now, 682 children attend the school, from kindergarten through sixth grade. Most came from neighboring--and crowded--San Marcos Elementary and Woodland Park Elementary. The district has grown from 6,228 students in September, 1986, to 6,655 a year ago to 7,367 students this month, and every other school in the district uses relocatable classrooms to handle the overflow. Another school already is on tap for a master-planned residential community near Palomar Community College.

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Even though it is only 3 weeks old, Knob Hill is expected to be filled to capacity by the end of the next school year, and officials plan as a matter of routine to bring in more relocatable classrooms.

Almost all of Principal Patricia Arendt’s staff of 24 teachers asked to be transfered to Knob Hill, and she says one of the joys of the new school is building a spirit of camaraderie. “We’ve all wanted to experience the opening of a brand new school,” she said.

Bernd said one of the district’s concerns was that, no matter how attractive the school was, students would be upset by being taken from their old schools. The transition, it seems, has been smooth.

“They’ve got everything here!” said second-grader Rachel Del Palacio. And 5-year-old kindergartner Jessica Rawlins said, in a classroom assignment for a back-to-school night next spring, “I love the teachers. And I like the school because it’s new and lovable.”


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