Pimlico students give input on new school building

Isaiah House won't be one of the students who walks through the doors of the newly renovated Pimlico Elementary/Middle School in a few years, but he jumped at the opportunity Wednesday to propose what he thought those who come after him should see and experience.

"I think there should be a meditation room," the eighth-grader told his classmates as they pored over a blueprint of their current school. "So when the little kids are having a hard day, they can go in there and calm down."

The students participated in an exercise led by the architects who will design the new Pimlico building, one of the first to be renovated or rebuilt under the city's $1 billion, 10-year plan to overhaul its dilapidated school infrastructure.

Under the plan, the district would close 26 buildings, end or relocate 29 programs, and renovate or rebuild 136 facilities beginning in 2015.

Isaiah and his classmates shuffled and stacked colored blocks to transform classrooms to shared-use and lounge spaces, move elementary students closer to the playground and middle-schoolers closer to the gym, and ensure the cafeteria is positioned conveniently for custodians and administrators.

"Even though I won't be here to enjoy it, I felt like I was part of something great," Isaiah said of the building-block exercise. "I'll be able to visit and see the mark I left."

Peter Winebrenner, vice president of the Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht, said the building-block exercise would allow the firm to think outside the box as it begins creating a new space for Pimlico.

"What's great about kids is they aren't as burdened with the same inhibitions we as adults are," Winebrenner said. "They may come up with things that are out of this world and may push us further than we were willing to go before. So we need the users to inform the process as much as possible."

The firm will be designing another school, Arlington Elementary, also recommended to be renovated or replaced in the plan's first year.

"There were a lot of stump questions about where things could fit, and we had to think about other people," said Tyshon Brown, a seventh-grader who took part in the activity at Pimlico. "Now I know how hard it's going to be for them. But it was good for them to see how kids feel about the school."

The students' input will inform a feasibility study that the firm will submit to the district, a process that will occur for every school included in the 10-year plan. After the feasibility study, each school will go through a design phase and then construction.

This summer, the school system set parameters, called "education specifications," that will guide the designs of buildings that can support technology and other demands of a 21st-century education.

The specifications call for classrooms that can accommodate various seating styles, high ceilings with multiple light sources, and furniture with built-in power sources.

The district has also called for clusters of classroom spaces balanced against open space that can be used for group lessons and community gatherings.

Pimlico held a meeting last month during which parents, students and staff discussed what they'd like to see in their new school.

Principal Elneeta Jones said that much of the community feedback reflected what students communicated with their color-coded building blocks Wednesday: spaces that would support more experimental teaching and programs like music and art that are often abandoned in city schools.

Parents and teachers, she said, also wanted to make sure that there would be enough staff and funding to help students flourish in those environments.

"We have kids who have so many talents," Jones said. "So it was important to them that we have what we need to run a successful 21st-century building."

For Isaiah, a 21st-century education would be grounded in the basics.

"I want something that's new and advanced," he said. "But we don't want to be too high-tech where kids forget that you still have to write with a pencil."



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