Nan Austin

Billion-dollar question: Can Modesto rebuild and do it better?

Students play soccer behind the portable classrooms of Kirschen Elementary in southwest Modesto, Calif. on April 26, 2016. Every classroom is a portable building at the school, serving nearly 700 students who are 98 percent poor and 96 percent minority.
Students play soccer behind the portable classrooms of Kirschen Elementary in southwest Modesto, Calif. on April 26, 2016. Every classroom is a portable building at the school, serving nearly 700 students who are 98 percent poor and 96 percent minority.

Modesto City Schools is pushing forward to transform teaching into an interactive, collaborative process. But its early-grade campuses are stuck in another century, and as the district makes plans for major repairs, there seems to be little appetite to shake the status quo.

If the district wants voters to get behind $1 billion in school repairs, however, it has to convince them it can set aside its fiefdoms and rethink how it has always done things.

On many levels, the school district cannot afford to simply patch up what exists today. For one thing, it costs too much. Bulldozing the buildings and starting over in many cases would be cheaper.

Perpetuating the same design, moreover, fails to convince anyone the district is serious about equity. Inescapable comparisons show glaring disparities between new and old, the north and the south.

As retired Sylvan district school facilities planner Henry Patrino put it, “Something has to happen, or the kids that need it the most will be getting the least.”

The district did a needs assessment of cracked pavement, deteriorating pipes and peeling paint at its 34 schools and five administrative sites, toting up a jaw-dropping total of $746,803,000. Add in architects, engineers and permits, and it rounds up to a $1 billion investment to create a shiny version of what was, just with better wheelchair access and reliable plumbing.

But there were greater needs the assessment did not cover, such as reinventing the spaces for how schools function now, or flexibility for what they might do in the future. Here are some thoughts:


Consider the possibilities of learning spaces ready for a virtual field trip to a state park, messy projects or storytelling, with areas for small projects or a reading nook – as well as full shelves of books.

The Concord School District in New Hampshire replaced school libraries at three new campuses with 30-foot-wide, two-story Learning Corridors that have a cheery, open-air vibe and broad swaths of sunny colors. I found them by using Google to search “innovative school design,” which also pulled up a showcase for school design on the American Architectural Foundation site.

The point is, there are choices. Even if the showplaces are beyond reach, they have ideas worth exploring.


It makes sense to make room for small groups and even whole classes to collaborate, especially given the potential of coming technology.

Working with school furnishings provider KI, consultant Rob Brodnick studied how to adapt schools for future learning tools.

“Some of the trends have pretty significant impacts for physical spaces,” Brodnick said in a phone interview. He identified three in particular.

▪  The “maker movement.” Several local districts, including Hickman Community Charter, are expanding “maker” activities for students. Hickman filled a school shed with rows of bins like a specialized hardware store, with students able to work on planned projects or just dabble.

“That means tables with boxes of materials,” Brodnick said. “Storage is going to need to be very modular, with tables on wheels.” He also suggested purposely spartan chairs to encourage students to stand up and move around.

Another option would be standing desks, which a 2015 study by the Texas A&M School of Public Health found “significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities.” One designed at the University of Chicago, initially for special education students, is the Focus desk, which adapts to standing or different seat heights. It has wheels, a hook for backpacks and sides that come up to expand the desk space or flip up for testing privacy.

▪  Virtual learning environments. He is not talking about kids staring into their laptops. He means virtual reality trips into learning games and, one day, inside volcanoes, down to the bottom of the sea or bouncing across the moon. Even today, teachers could put on a big-screen dance video for classes to boogie to for physical education on a rainy day.

▪  The boundary-free learning space. Kids talk about lessons that interest them during recess, looking up things on their cellphones and wrapping social time into the mental mix.

“Learning is moving outside the classroom, to elementary playgrounds and lunch rooms,” Brodnick said. “If you get them interested in a classroom project, and if they’re excited about that, they chat outside the classroom.”


Outdoor areas have long been geared for team sports, but how many of us play pickup soccer anymore?

A fitness trail (think PAR course) with workout stations running alongside the track, a Carmen Sandiego-style run around the map game, Nerf games or a class set of jump ropes are other ideas for the playground.

Chess and board games can be played in the shade – if there is shade.

Plus, new research is proving what parents and kindergarten teachers have always known. Kids forced to sit still for long periods tune out and get wiggly. They are hardwired to move.

The LiiNK project is studying the benefits of having four 15-minute recess periods during the day, mostly at schools in Texas, and early findings show promise in academics and behavior.

But school layouts have to think through this century’s security issues and noise concerns in order for recess, gardens and outdoor learning to be welcoming.

Changing neighborhoods

The Great Recession created tremendous upheaval in school enrollment. Foreclosures and job losses sent young families scrambling for affordable housing.

But even without a crisis, neighborhoods age. Being able to shift from high preschool numbers to grade school, or even creating a K-8 until younger families return makes sense. That takes greater flexibility – in administrative minds as much as architecture.

Portable classrooms were designed to move as populations shifted, but that is not what happens. In practice, the mobile home-like frames sit on concrete foundations, many with plumbing. Modesto has three schools entirely made of portable classrooms, Kirschen, Robertson Road and Martone elementaries, all on the west side of town.

Another portable option comes from Lodi-based Meehleis Modular Buildings Inc, which produces wood-framed pre-built classrooms, though it prefers to call them modular, said company spokesman Bill Stillwell. The company also makes two-story cafeterias or classroom buildings with modular elevators. Bret Harte High in Angels Camp is an example of itswork.

“Traditional site-built construction can take up to two years. Ours are built with the same lumber, steel, roofing and siding as a site-built unit,” Stillwell said, but modular buildings arrive ready to snap together, saving time and significantly lowering labor costs.

Changing uses

The district’s predominantly low-income elementary schools would be well-served by incorporating community services. Orville Wright Elementary has moved in this direction with a tiny community center at its edge.

Schools already get called on to help connect the dots to get social services and medical help for needy families. At 11 Modesto elementary campuses, that’s everybody.

Preschool and transitional kindergarten classes – already provided on many Modesto campuses – also need to be part of the plan, not squeezed in later. They need special security features and a straight shot to the bathrooms.

Expanding inclusion of special education students, preferred by law and advocated by a state blue-ribbon panel last year, should not face architectural barriers on top of all the culture and training issues.

Changing mindsets

After-school programs need to be able to share classroom and-or cafeteria space – a conflict with traditional, territorial thinking, but unavoidable if the programs are ever going to grow to meet the need.

If teachers had a lockable cupboard and ample storage, and kids had uniform desks with hooks for their backpacks, sharing would be easier. But the wider solution is thinking of the space as a part of the school instead of a private domain – no easy thing when teachers pull from their own pockets to set up the room.


More than anything, the seedy motel model – a legacy of low budgets and booming enrollment throughout the Valley – needs to be replaced with safer, more welcoming layouts.

“What a school looks like and the quality of the instructional program are completely separate. One has nothing to do with the other. But when kids show up to school and it’s an old, seedy, paint-peeling, piece-of-crap school, it sends a message. We’ve sent a message,” said the plainspoken Patrino.

So far, there has been no discussion of improving anything, only of how much money could be raised.

Not enough, is the bottom line.

A half-billion dollars worth of needs exist at its elementary district, 22 elementary schools and four junior highs, serving a mostly lower-income attendance area (re: tax base) of 30 square miles.

Unified districts, serving the same kids kindergarten through high school, can pass one bond and use the money wherever needed. But Modesto City Schools is a single administration running two districts.

Modesto’s high school district sprawls over 280 square miles and eight elementary districts, including Modesto City Elementary School District. All but one of its seven elementary feeder districts, stretching from Empire to Salida, already tax their property owners for elementary schools.

Doing very simple math for Modesto: 30 squares miles of modest properties vs. 280 square miles with higher average values adds up to a mismatch of what needs to be done and what bond funds could ever be raised.

For decades the state did a 50-50 match for building and renovating schools. It even footed the bill in cases of extreme need. The first-come, first-served system gave larger districts with more expertise an edge, and there was never enough money to go around.

Now state money for building schools has run out. That well is dry and Gov. Jerry Brown has shown little enthusiasm to dig deeper, believing the system is inequitable and insufficient.

A $9 billion state bond initiative is heading to a vote in November. But even if it passes, Modesto will have a tough time qualifying to build, Patrino points out. The state figures school capacity for elementary schools at 25 kids per class. Using 2014-15 attendance figures and the needs assessment classroom count, on paper Modesto has 126 empty elementary classrooms, by my figures.

Patrino counted up 45 extra rooms among the district’s junior highs and 154 available rooms at its high schools, not including the much-overlooked Elliott continuation campus.

But while they fail to meet state criteria as used, there are probably no rooms sitting empty.

A sensible next step for Modesto City Schools is to inventory how all its classrooms are being used. Low-numbers classes like Advanced Placement physics or special education classes, music rooms, science labs or resource areas are all legitimate reasons to set aside classrooms.

But the board members should weigh in on what they believe counts as at capacity before asking the taxpayers to pony up for another 25 years.

Rebuilding and-or redesigning will be wrought with conflicts between different interest groups. A committee of influential community and district stakeholders could bring fresh ideas and much-needed voter and union buy-in to the process.

It all comes back to this: If Modesto City Schools is going to get big money for school repairs, it will have to convince folks it has a better plan than just redoing what has always been done.