The space is bright, open, futuristic.
Visitors might not expect those descriptors to be associated with Eden Park Elementary School, which was constructed in the 1950s – and, like many of Cranston’s school facilities, clearly shows its 20th-century roots and the wear of serving generations of students.
But the school’s new Learning Community, as the renovated intermediate wing has been renamed, embodies a vision of what the city’s educational system will look like in the decades to come – and will serve, officials hope, as a model for other schools in Cranston and beyond.
“When learning is no longer tied down by physical and imaginary walls, the opportunities are endless,” Eden Park Principal Courtney Sevigny told guests during a celebration and tour of the Learning Community on Oct. 16. “What I see happening at Eden Park is nothing short of magic.”
The renovations, known as the Eden Park Pathfinder Project, were completed over the summer at a cost of approximately $8.8 million, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said.
The project was funded through previously approved bond money released by the city. The superintendent noted that the work was completed in two months – far more quickly than the five months that would typically be expected for a project of its scope.
Nota-Masse said the roots of the “ambitious” project trace to last winter, when community meetings were held with representatives of Fielding Nair International, or FNI, an education planning and architectural design firm that is working with Cranston Public Schools on planned facilities improvements.
The district is planning to bring an approximately $130 million bond question before votes in November 2020. The bond would fund the first phase of planned school building upgrades, including both renovations and new construction.
Students, teachers, staff, administration, families and community partners were involved in the early FNI discussions, Nota-Masse said, after which the firm identified Eden Park as the starting point and model for the district-wide initiative – hence the “Pathfinder Project” moniker.
The involvement of the community went further, as well, with students, teachers and staff playing a vital role in the process of designing the renovations.
“That’s a critical piece of this – the students, the teachers and the folks in the community helped to design the school, people who are in it every day,” Nota-Masse said.
Students, she said, asked for more windows and natural light, as well as flexible seating options. Teachers, meanwhile wanted to see classroom spaces designed to support modern educational needs.
The Learning Community is designed as a significant departure from typical classroom settings, allowing for mobility and collaboration among students and teachers. Students can work individually or collaboratively, moving between learning spaces and across grade levels with access to a range of resources.
Nota-Masse said the space is meant to accommodate 20 different learning modalities.
“The intermediate wing has been designed to enhance student engagement and personalization,” she said of the final product. “It has been designed to support teacher collaboration, and most importantly, it has been designed to give our educators and our students a space which can prepare them for living and learning in this century.”
The superintendent said the Learning Community at Eden Park provides a “model home of sorts” as the district looks ahead. She also spoke of a new approach being taken with regard to facilities projects.
“It is a blueprint for our education projects as we go forward,” she said. “No longer will we focus solely on construction that does not include and educational impact for our students and our staff. We will incorporate things like a new roof or new paint, but our focus will be on project that will truly enhance our students’ educational experiences and make our school district a model for others to follow.”
The enthusiasm for the new learning space was on full display during the Oct. 16 event, an invitation-only gathering and tour that was followed by a public open house on Oct. 19.
Teachers wore white corsages, while a number of students clad in blue T-shirts served as the night’s “ambassadors.” Members of both groups spoke with visitors throughout the Learning Community after a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony, while Cranston High School East JROTC cadets served as guides and Cranston Area Career and Technical Center culinary arts students provided refreshments.
Fifth-grade student Mia McDaniel welcomed visitors to “Mulligan’s Island” – one of the rooms that students had a hand in giving a creative name with local ties. It houses fifth-grade math classes.
“All of the rooms in this Learning Community are named after something in Rhode Island … There’s Budlong Pool, Del’s, New York System,” she said.
“I like it because we get to move around a lot and we don’t have to sit in one desk all the time,” she said.
Fifth-grade student Ava Chiarello showed off a learning nook, which features white board, an LED light and charging stations. She said she usually uses the nook for test-taking or other work.
Ava said she has enjoyed the new Learning Community – and highlighted the range of seating options.
“I like it a lot because I like the wobbly chairs,” she said.
Third-grader Sienna Fatorma and fifth-grader Mackenzie Stall had perhaps the best jobs among the student ambassadors – showing visitors the Sensory Room, which provides a place to students to recharge and play with textures and lighting.
“You have to get your teacher’s permission, but if you’re getting stressed out on a test or something, you can come in here,” Mackenzie said.
Avigail Milder of Philadelphia-based Milder Office Inc. was on hand representing her company, which designed and built several pieces of furniture for the renovated wing. She said the 10-person business typically does work for higher learning institutions.
“What makes us special is we believe in participatory design … really talking to the stakeholders,” she said.
Milder said teachers were specifically interested in flexibility and mobile storage, which were incorporated in the design. She said the Oct. 16 event provided a chance to get additional feedback from teachers for future projects.
“It’s been really great,” she said.
Fifth-grade teacher Liz Gencarelli, who is in her fourth year at Eden Park and 13th year in Cranston Public Schools, said the Learning Community is “beyond a teacher’s wildest dreams.”
“To see it from the beginning with the planning and now come to fruition is kind of amazing,” she said.
Gencarelli said the new space has pushed her and other educators “beyond what I could possibly imagine,” and that the co-teaching and collaboration it has fostered requires hard work but has proven rewarding. She also said the benefits for students are becoming increasingly apparent.
“We’re in October, we’re finally getting in our groove now, and now the kids are starting to run this place, which is what our expectations and hopes were for them, so I can’t wait to see the progress that’s made come January, come May,” she said.