An elementary school in Bayview-Hunters Point is one of two public schools in San Francisco where multiple classes are held in open spaces, eliciting outrage from parents in recent weeks that the design could leave students vulnerable in the event of a school shooting.
Such a concern, coupled with worries that the open-pod classrooms are too noisy and thus distracting for children, have prompted San Francisco Unified School District officials to explore a major overhaul of the interior of the building.
Situated at the end of a cul-de-sac in The City’s predominantly black southeast, George Washington Carver Elementary School was built with doorless classrooms in 1972 — decades before schools became frequent settings for mass shootings across the U.S.
Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, schools have installed special locks on doors that can be locked from both the inside and outside, so if there’s an active shooter on campus, a teacher can protect students behind a secured door.
That’s not possible at Carver, however, where there are no individual classrooms, but rather three pods spread out between two floors, each holding four to five classes. Those classes of about 20 students are separated by dividers instead of doors and walls.
Salaia Copeland said she was worried about where her two granddaughters, who attend Carver, would hide “in case a gunman” came onto campus without doors separating classrooms. “You don’t know if the outside door in the lunch room is open,” she said.
“I’m really concerned,” said Je-Meese Lemmons, whose daughter attends Carver. “I’m worried that they might get inside a pod and the teachers cannot protect the children.”
One of those children, 7-year-old Lilyana Ransburg, said she does not feel safe because a disgruntled parent who recently came on campus wearing a disguise threatened to burn down the school using nail polish.
“We need doors and walls so no crazy people try to hurt us,” the second-grader said. “There was an incident with a lady who was just crazy and she tried to hurt us.”
After a group of students and parents from the elementary school spoke out during public comment at two recent Board of Education meetings, district officials said they will explore setting aside around $1 million to renovate the school and create individual classrooms.
“We’re going to start the process with the principal of the school to try and remodel the school,” said David Goldin, chief facilities officer for the SFUSD, who noted that the money could come from a previous bond.
On Friday, Carver Principal Emmanuel Stewart said he was onboard with the plans to turn the campus into a more traditional setting. The open-classroom design has caused “noise pollution” at the school, not only from classroom to classroom but from the outside neighborhood, he said.
More than 200 people have also signed a petition calling on the district to add doors and walls to Carver. The pods are too noisy for learning and hard to teach in, according to the petition. “Our kids cannot concentrate under these condition,” it reads.
The school was built based on popular design in the 1960s and 70s. Open classrooms are a trend which has reemerged as of late, said Gentle Blythe, a spokesperson for the school district.
“The educational philosophy behind the design was that this type of floor plan would allow for collaboration, innovation and sharing of ideas between different classes and students,” Blythe wrote in an email.
Blythe said Carver “had a full building modernization” five years ago, but the community at the time was not interested in changing the floor plan.
The renovation project will require a major overhaul of the interior of the school, including changes to pathways, electrical systems, and fire alarms and sprinklers, according to the district. The Division of the State Architect will have to approve the plans and the construction contract would have to go up for competitive bidding.
“You don’t just deliver a door, you don’t just build a wall,” said Goldin. “School construction is like hospital construction, it takes time. It’s complicated.”
Linda Antoine, the mother of first-grade student Sparkle Harper, was skeptical that the school district will follow through with the renovations and demanded Friday that construction start before the school year ends next month, fearing that Carver’s needs would be swept under the rug over the summer.
“Public school construction doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve heard [the parents],” Goldin said.
Donna Smith, a parent liaison at the school, said Carver parents want what other schools across San Francisco have. The only other school in the district with an open-classroom layout besides Carver is Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School — also in the Bayview.
“We want what everybody else has,” Smith said. “We’re on the southeast side. We want everything they have on the west side.”
Goldin said that money from the district’s facilities bond on the November ballot could be used to transform Drew Elementary from its open pod design, if that’s what the school community wants.