AURORA | The elementary schoolers who report for classes at Black Forest Hills Elementary later this month won’t have to wait very long to be plugged in.
All students from the third to fifth grade will receive iPads for classwork. Smartboards and projectors in every classroom will place an early stress on the latest technology. Eighty percent of the school’s library catalogue will be in e-book, paperless form.
Weeks before Black Forest Hills Elementary School opens its doors for its first students in the Tallyn’s Reach neighborhood of Aurora, teachers and administrators already have a specific focus in mind for the Cherry Creek School District’s newest school.
Funded through the district’s successful 2008 bond issue, the building features 24 classrooms rigged for wireless Internet access and paperless learning. Schools across the district are making a similar shift toward connectivity, but the stress is particularly noticeable at this new building near Aurora’s sprawling southeastern border. The school has a noticeable absence of filing cabinets in the shiny new classrooms and tall, communal desks designed to accommodate standing students using tablet computers.
“Part of our curriculum practice is that we’re very technology focused … We will basically be a STEM elementary school,” said Principal Stacey Peoples, using the popular acronym for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based curriculum. “The reason why I don’t say it quite that way is that the ‘E’ part in elementary school is very confusing. What does engineering look like in kindergarten? What it really looks like is math.
“It’s the intense math and problem solving,” Peoples added.
Even with that focus, Black Forest Hills won’t play the same role as the district’s Institute of Science and Technology, a specialized STEM school that opened in between Overland High and Prairie Middle schools last year. As she walked through the empty halls of the building that’s set to welcome more than 300 students next month, Peoples insisted that the curriculum at Black Forest Hills, the new home of the Owls, will also include language skills, arts and physical education. She illustrated her point by pointing to the baby grand piano that sits in the center of the school’s library; she pointed to a group of students practicing a choir routine for the school’s grand opening ceremony Aug. 2.
“You can’t just have a STEM focus and not have arts, language and P.E.,” Peoples said, adding that foreign language will also play a big role in the school’s daily lesson plans. “Science will be a big push for us. Basically, our schedule is 45 minutes a day of science, 30 minutes a day of Spanish, two hours of literacy and 90 minutes of math. We don’t teach technology, we teach with technology.”
The stress on foreign language skills came as a result of recommendations from parents and neighbors. According to Peoples, about one-third of the staff is fluent in Spanish and will teach foreign language classes.
“The best part of this whole deal is the parent community. They’ve been involved in everything from naming the school to picking out the mascot,” she said. “They wanted a foreign language, and I couldn’t agree with them more … In this community, a foreign language is very valuable.”
The school was originally budgeted to cost $15.8 million, but the final price tag was $15.4 million due to cheaper construction materials. That lower price paid for a wide range of fancy features, from a hardwood floor in the gym to a energy-efficient design. Like Pine Ridge Elementary School — another bond-funded building that opened last year — Black Forest Hills features skylights, windows and an orientation designed to capture sunlight. Its similarities to Pine Ridge are no accident, both buildings were designed by Boulder-based OZ Architecture.
“We usually work from a prototype. It saves us money to start from a (single) design,” said district spokeswoman Tustin Amole. “Sometimes you have to change the prototype based on the land that you get, (but) we try to use the same plan.”
Black Forest Hills is the second of three new elementary schools to be funded from the 2008 bond election. Pine Ridge opened in 2011, and an as-yet unnamed third elementary is set to open in 2014, later than originally anticipated.
“When we saw growth slow during the recession, we delayed the building and opening of some of these schools,” Amole said.
For now, Black Forest Hills has space to accommodate the growth in enrollment that’s characterized the southeastern stretches of the district. Black Forest Hill’s incoming class of about 340 will take pressure off of neighboring Coyote Hills Elementary School — both feed into Fox Ridge Middle School and Cherokee Trail High School. As the district begins its campaign to pass a new $125 million bond issue in the fall, that rise in enrollment hasn’t escaped the attention of administrators at Cherry Creek’s newest elementary.
“We were projected to start at 300, and I’m already at almost 340,” Peoples said. “The growth in this Cherokee Trail feeder area is crazy.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-449-9707