From two buildings to one, from two bathrooms in the basement to multiple "water closets" on every floor, from lab tables to a lab with all the latest gadgets, the teachers and students at Fairview-Clifton German Language School are getting to know the differences a new building can make. The new Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) building opened its school year Aug. 19.
"Comparisons between the old and new are almost constant," says Karen Mulligan, Fairview principal. "Obviously, air condition is a plus. And bathrooms! We were in a building that was built in 1888, and it had two bathrooms that were in the basement. So if you were a fifth and sixth grader on the top floor, you had to go all the way down and then all the way back up."
Mulligan points out some things that are new to the school, including room signs in both English and German that reinforce the magnet school's dual-language focus and the gym/auditorium separate from the cafeteria, which will help with scheduling activities. There's a nurse's office so the vice principal's office no longer has to do double duty, and there are separate offices for the school psychologist, speech pathologist, band director and a visiting teacher.
She says her favorite room in the entire school is the cafeteria, a two-story space flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and a fabulous view of a mature yew tree.
"No one actually knew the significance of this tree until much later in the design process," Mulligan says. "The cafeteria was supposed to go out into more of a rectangle. We had somebody from the zoo come and look at the tree, did a little research, and it's one of four in the country that's this size and in this condition. It's a grand champion yew.
"Once we had that information it's, 'Uh oh! Now what do we do?' Nobody wanted to see it cut down. We did explore moving it."
After moving the tree turned out to be cost prohibitive, the school redesigned around it. More than a landscaping element, the tree has become a focal point for the entire community as well as the school; the tree has its own maintenance plan.
"I got e-mails throughout the summer, 'The tree's looking like it's getting a little brown. Is someone taking care of the tree?'" Mulligan says. "Somebody said to me the other day, 'It's so nice the kids will be able to climb in the tree.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh no! Those kids are not going in that tree.'"
In addition to tree preservation, Fairview has picked up another unexpected responsibility with their new facility: a pre-kindergarten program. The extra class was added when a pre-k program at another CPS school closed. Twenty new 4-year-old students will enjoy the benefit of a full-day program; there are 40 more on a waiting list. Mulligan had to reject the idea of two half-day sessions to accommodate more children because the building is completely full.
The one open classroom that was left is now being used to house an additional second-grade classroom because there were too many second graders. As it is, Fairview had already included extra classrooms by deviating from the preferred CPS school design to accommodate the needs of their unique language curriculum.
In addition to regular instruction given in English, students attend daily German language classes and receive part of their core curriculum, like math and science, in German. This means German language instructors need to have their own classrooms.
"Cincinnati Public wanted all of their buildings in pods so you would have four classrooms joined by an extended learning area in the middle," Mulligan explains. "Those four classrooms could use that area for pulling out in small groups (or) tutoring. That didn't fit with our program because we have five and a half German teachers that obviously need a quiet space. We kept some of the pod design because if we move out of this building in five years and another program moves in they would be able to utilize the space in that pod design."
One extended learning area on the first and second floors is enclosed with large sliding doors at opposite ends of the space. These can stay open, giving the area a less closed-in feel if it needs to be converted.
That kind of effort gives the children and teachers what they need and still respects the objectives of the district as a result of the Community Learning Center process, according to Mulligan.
By inviting Clifton residents, service providers and others into the design process, Fairview has been able to draw on the expertise of many people to create a school building that will support the entire community, in addition to the education of young people.
"The more adult involvement, the more community involvement that you have the better off you are," Mulligan says. "(With) more adults your ratios of adult/child is something that really benefits. That and the fact that you get great ideas.
"When we knew we were moving, we started working with people. To see people whose kids are grown or don't have children being so committed to a public elementary school — none of their family will attend here — yet they've embraced it and made it their own."
That support has translated into an effort to create an "arts campus" by incorporating the programming of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center (see "Artists in the Neighborhood," issue of Dec. 27, 2006), housed in Carriage House behind the school and the old Clifton School across the street, into the Fairview curriculum.
Mulligan believes the school and the collaboration it took to make the building a reality will mean good things for everyone involved.
"We're a pretty traditional school," she says. "You'll find that our chairs and desks will be in rows. That's the culture, that's the mindset. Very high expectations here. From working with the Clifton community I think their community has very high expectations of a good mix of culture, just like the school. So when I found out we were moving here I thought, 'This is going to be a perfect fit.'"