By Donald Yamagata, Director Facilities Development/Maintenance Operations, Montebello USD; Joe Quinonez, Facilities Development Manager, Montebello USD; Pasqual Gutierrez, Director of Architecture, HMC Architects

California public school officials continually face an array of challenges that have a direct impact on education: aging facilities, shifts in enrollment, inadequate technology, shortfalls in operational budgets, and ever-changing legislative requirements.

California public school officials continually face an array of challenges that have a direct impact on education: aging facilities, shifts in enrollment, inadequate technology, shortfalls in operational budgets, ever-changing legislative requirements, and the list goes on. While it may be overwhelming to focus on long-term planning strategies as a priority with so many immediate challenges present, it is to every district’s advantage to plan for the future. At Montebello Unified School District, they established a long-term plan for the future and laid the groundwork for their internal vision of a better school. The District engaged in a strategy that would bring about a 21st Century learning and teaching environment by studying multiple planning options, leveraging funding to their advantage, and engaging the local community to support their plan of action.

Montebello’s Joseph Gascon Elementary School, a 1960s era overcrowded elementary school located in East Los Angeles, had virtually no open space on campus and was in need of improving key elements of its learning environment and enhancing the wellbeing of teachers and students alike. Federal and state class size reduction programs, while established to improve educational achievement for all students by reducing class size ratios per teacher, contributed to the addition of a multitude of portable classrooms over the years and had nearly wiped-out this urban campus’ open space. The District’s Governing School Board sought to re-establish a vibrant campus and transform the school for better educational outcomes.

Montebello USD sought guidance from HMC to develop a vision and several planning options. Extensive discussions occurred on the topic of replacement versus repair of the existing portables, and the pros and cons of each. The design team also introduced the concept of a new multi-story building, which would make open space available and create opportunities for outdoor learning centers. The strategy also included a systematic implementation plan that would allow for the construction of a new facility, while the existing school was still in place and operational.

The District opted to eliminate the portables completely to allow for the new facility to maximize open space on the tight 4.5-acre urban site and provide the most efficient learning environment. The plan for the school included designing a two-story, U-shaped building that added 31 new classrooms, 1 adult education room, and 2 Headstart classrooms—bringing the campus total to 53 classrooms. It creates an additional 27,700 SF of open space, an increase of almost 37%. In addition, the project secures 44 new faculty parking spaces and plans have been filed with Division of the State Architect to establish a street identity for the campus and add a student pick-up/drop-off circulation zone.

Today, public school funding is either feast or famine and obtaining funding is surrounded by a high degree of uncertainty. It is essential for districts to have their strategic plan and vision in place, so that when funding does become available, they are able to capitalize on it immediately. That is exactly what Montebello USD was able to do. To help properly position their vision, they underwent a community outreach initiative to make the local community aware of the campus planning strategies. Principals, faculty, and staff were all involved in the outreach to gain community support and show that the District was addressing the campus challenges.

When looking at facilities across its District, Montebello USD is keeping an open mind to possibilities. Joseph Gascon Elementary is serving as an example of a successful outcome brought about by strategic planning and calculated implementation. Montebello USD recently engaged HMC to complete a district-wide Comprehensive Master Plan, which addresses the elements of an existing campus facilities assessment, targeted opportunities for improving the learning environments, establishing school space protocols, technology infrastructure design guidelines, and sustainable/environmental design strategies all to be strategically implemented over the next few years.