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Parents worry open-classroom layout at SF school leaves students vulnerable

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Je-Meese Lemmons, second from left, stands with her daughter and other parents and students not comfortable with George Washington Carver Elementary School’s open-space floor plan, saying it leaves students vulnerable in an emergency. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

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.

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  • jhayes362

    The comment from the second grade student really saddened me. Schools should be a refuge from all the violence that surrounds us.

  • frankie “da dhimmi” Clemenza

    All these moron parents do is vote for leftist democrats, then they complain and blame the GOP.

  • Tad Bootle

    You want what everyone else has? Get a job and pay for it like they do. School construction is complicated because libs made it that way.

  • Himeko

    So they want big beautiful walls with doors to protect their kids, just not their country.

  • arptro

    Don’t tear down something that facilitates learning on a daily basis for a fear that is statistically speaking, incredibly unlikely to happen.

  • Kyle Guthrie

    Arm the staff, total cost, including a some defense training, under 15,000 dollars. Then they need not worry about walls & doors.

  • linda antione

    Either you people don’t have kids or you don’t give a damn about kids. And you don’t have any feelings. Not only that but bayview is just as much suburban area as mission bay. They want a new library because their is too small. And a new school for mission bay. But that’s ok. So how many of you got something to say about that? Because mission bay is the uppity tech family so it’s ok? But the bayview hundred point has an old school asking for walls to help the disabled learn more. What’s wrong with this picture? So bayview don’t deserve nothing? just write that you hate children.
    – Linda Antione
    p.s. to all you that hate people that help their schools that gets things for every kid of every color. I’m a George Washington caver parent who loves her kids. Every race.

  • linda antione

    it sounds like you are part of the GOP and I see why your response is the way it is you are for the 1% that’s why your party is mess up now. Y’all just greedy and won’t help the needy

  • linda antione

    Yes we want walls and doors for our kids cause we never had them and i guess this is your country

  • Himeko

    Hey, too bad it has become a country where gangs and criminals use schools for target practice. Welcome to the USA. Used to be we could have classes in the park or on the school lawn. Now everyone has to hide behind walls and parents are not allowed to choose what to feed their own children for breakfast and lunch. I wonder what the hell happened?

  • frankie “da dhimmi” Clemenza

    Yeah, right…I’m part of the “1%”…NOT!….but you’re gay…YES!

  • KC

    Being a an SF native and teacher, who has taught in pod setting, I can attest to the fact that these families are so ‘right on’ for asking for walls and doors. The fact that the only two schools with this pod layout in all over 70 Elementary schools in SFUSD are located in the Bayview Zone, an area of SF that has been over looked and hidden away due to its notorious blight. These children deserve every bit of help from the city and district to give them every opportunity for success. These pod classrooms are so noise and not conducive to learning, for any human. Thank you Carver families for speaking out about this issue!