Sitting next to an empty fish tank, Chrystal White referred to her office as her “sanctuary” before rising from her desk chair to shut its door.
“This is my serenity place. Out there, there’s a whole lot going on, but this is where I can get away, turn the lights off,” said White, the secretary at George Washington Carver Elementary School in the Bayview District, on a recent Monday.
Just a few months prior, quiet spaces that offered privacy, tranquility and a safe learning environment to students and faculty alike were a luxury at the elementary school, where instruction was held in open spaces and classes were separated only by partitions, if at all.
The elementary school serves some 170 students and was one of two schools located in The City’s predominantly black southeastern neighborhood that had been built with open classrooms in the 1960s and 1970s.
“There [were] no walls, no doors, it was like partitions that ran across from the beginning to the end,” White said. “Can you imagine the noise level of each class, the teachers raising their voice in every class? You could hear everything.”
But parents’ mounting frustrations with what some deemed a safety hazard and others viewed as neglect of an already economically vulnerable student body prompted school leaders to take action. Last spring, the school district invested about $1.9 million in a contract for new windows and walls for the schools, according to San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson Heidi Anderson.
Over the course of 11 weeks, while students were out on summer break, their school was transformed — unbeknownst to them — into something more traditional and sustainable, according to the school’s principal, Emmanuel Stewart.
Walls were erected to separate what were previously three open classrooms merged into one, and outfitted with doors that can be secured. Newly installed windows offer students a view of the surrounding residential neighborhood, and a computer lab that before opened into a highly-trafficked hallway is now framed by a wall, isolating it from the bustle.
“Before all you heard was noise. But now when you actually go into the classrooms, you hear the sweet sound of students engaged,” Stewart said.
Walls will also be constructed at Charles R. Drew Elementary School, the Bayview’s other open-classroom school, next summer, Anderson said.
The open-pod layout at George Washington Carver Elementary School had worried parents and administrators for years, though the latter said they became accustomed to a somewhat chaotic teaching environment.
“The children were just walking out of class, hiding in the cubbies, hiding in the next classroom. We didn’t have a clue where the children were because it was just that open space. It was definitely a safety issue,” White said. “I think we became accustomed to it, I guess. Like that was how it was supposed to be.”
But some parents who witnessed the turmoil had seen enough.
“I was frustrated with it. I noticed a lot of bullying and wandering around, out of the pods and into other classrooms,” said Curtis Lee, whose two grandsons attend the school. “That’s putting a lot on the teachers and [some] don’t return because of that.”
With the help of the school’s now-retired parent liaison, a group of them began organizing for closed off classrooms over a year ago. In March, they demanded action from school officials at several consecutive Board of Education hearings.
Prior to the hearings, Lee and a number of other parents banded together and visited other local schools to compare “their academic environment to ours.”
“We have seen differences. They are starting from a deficit,” Lee said about George Washington Carver’s students. “We shouldn’t have to ask for it, but since we did have to ask for it, we did and we got it. It’s made a difference.”
Along with their school supplies, students walking through the doors of George Washington Carver Elementary school also oftentimes carry the pain of their community on their shoulders.
“For a lot of children going to school, there are mattresses, broken-down cars, drugs, there are all kinds of things their little eyes see,” said White. “They intake and inhale all this stuff — the shootings, the killings — they come here and they don’t know how to switch back.“
The biggest gain that the recent remodeling has brought to the students is personal space, said White. Some teachers have set up quiet spaces and “peace corners” in their classrooms — the kindergarten classroom is equipped with rugs and little couches, she said.
“We have a school now. Now you can see the self pride in the school. Students enjoy being here,” said Stewart.
Lee’s grandson, a fourth-grader named Justin, agreed.
“The paint, the classrooms, the walls — I like it,” said Justin. “When I was in third grade, the walls there were open [and] the second graders kept yelling and I could not do my work. Nobody is screaming in my class now because everybody in my class is good.”
While the major physical changes to the school were completed over the summer, Stewart said that a small but vital final improvement was made last week — dozens of tack boards were installed in the school’s hallways and classrooms, lending themselves to be decorated with student art and important notices to parents.
Walking through a hallway near the school’s entrance, Stewart greeted a student and her mother, who were busy looking through a series of photographs pinned to one of the tack boards.
“How are you, Ma’am? Good? You looking for yourself in those pictures? I’ll put more pictures up, trust me,” he promised.education