Since late January, the students and staff of Whittier Elementary have frolicked through the halls of a new edifice. Gone are the days of a small library so cramped it couldn’t fit another beanbag, of a gym that doubled as a cafeteria and a staff work room too tiny for multiple staff members to work inside at once.
At the new Whittier Elementary, the library is so spacious it has empty shelves. The new school has a separate gym and dining room and a kitchen so big that the dish-room alone outsizes the old space. The new second-floor staff room has so much room and shelving and light that it feels like a Kinko’s with a view of the mountains.
“I feel like I’m on a totally different planet,” Principal Fernanda Brendefur said from her new office. “It’s just wonderful.”
Whittier christened its new home, a 68,000-square-foot building on 29th st. on Thursday afternoon, offering public tours of the new space after a 2:30 p.m. ribbon cutting.
Brendefur took over as principal at Whittier in the fall of 2015, when the need for a new facility was apparent.
For example, she said, the old Whittier kitchen was designed to feed 300 students — but on a daily basis, the community school was feeding more than 500 children.
The new school can house more than 600 kids, Brendefur said, space she suspects Whittier could need for new students as more housing units go up in the area.
In just the past month, Brendefur said she’s seen the school help change the demeanors of students and staff.
Students are “more worn out,” she said — probably because instead of the small outside space that served as a playground during construction, they now have a massive dome to play on during recess.
Inter-classroom collaboration has also improved, Brendefur said, as teachers talk with each other across hallways, a luxury that wasn’t always possible when some of the classrooms were housed in portable buildings for space.
And the new expansion means that Whittier can start a Pre-K program next year, offer before and after school programs, and open up a community center where they can host adult-education classes for parents.
For students, the best part of the new facility is a toss-up. In drawings hung on the walls, some wrote about how much they love the library, others the “jim” or the new jungle-gym. “I love Whittier,” one student put it. “I like evrethig.[sic]”
Among the student projects on the walls are giant photo murals, mostly of smiling kids, overlaid with quotes in Spanish, Arabic, English and Swahili.
During the move-in process, Brendefur said, the staff got to chose the theme of the murals. They chose diversity, she said, to represent the wide range of students at the school, who speak nine different languages and represent a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“We’re just a really tight knit community and I think the school really is representative of the community we are,” Brendefur said. “We are passionate and care deeply about issues of diversity and equity and that is why we are proud to work with the population we have here.”