The upcoming opening of Rose Stein International Elementary School in Lakewood is a story of both opportunity and rejuvenation, and it shows what can happen when schools reinvest in neighborhoods.
This is a “unique opportunity to be part of a project that’s really community-based. We can transform a community,” says Principal Esther Valdez, who is starting her 30th year in education as a teacher, assistant principal and principal – all in Jeffco Public Schools – and sees her role at Rose Stein as an “unexpected gift.”
It’s the first time the district has renovated a school it had previously closed, and it shows the school district is committed to investing in a neighborhood that is diverse with a mix of incomes, Valdez says.
Previously called Stein, the school at 80 S. Teller St. in the O’Kane Park neighborhood has undergone a two-year overhaul, and it will open for the 2017-2018 school year in August, serving some 200 students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.
Originally designed by nationally renowned Denver architect Temple Buell, the school has been transformed from inside out. Energy-efficient windows and doors have been added, the boiler room has been upgraded to modernize the heating system and comprehensive asbestos abatement was conducted. On the outside, attractive landscaping, an athletic field, a new playground and even a community garden will fill the school grounds instead of 13 temporary buildings, which had become an eyesore and attracted transient criminal activity, Valdez notes. The transformation cost $3.4 million, but it was far less than the $20 million cost of a new building, she says.
The transformation of this “quirky and unique” building has left parents in the surrounding neighborhood telling Valdez they thought it was a new charter school rather than the neighborhood’s school. But connecting with the neighborhood is critical, and her vision is to make Rose Stein a true hub of activity and support for families and neighbors who thought the closure of the school was the end of the story.
Residents in the neighborhood have “the perception that their voice has gone unheard. We’re looking to heal that, restore that trust,” she says. She understands she has to “rebuild and restore” relationships with families who might be wondering, “You close my school, move my kids and now you want me to trust you.”
But she is firm in her mission. Rose Stein “is a community school. We will serve the community. Partnering is key to our success,” she stresses.
Valdez began several initiatives to reconnect with the neighborhood including going on evening community-engagement walks and hosting open houses, which led to a unique donation. After seeing that the school’s existing piano was old and in disrepair, a retired neighbor was inspired to donate his piano to the school. “He saw our reality and made the decision to make a donation we’re so thankful for,” she says.
Making those individual connections to neighbors is a priority for Valdez. “The individual person, there’s a niche for you. You don’t have to be a part of a club to donate your time or resources here,” she emphasizes. “What we’re creating with your help is a sustainable long-term relationship, not just looking pretty on opening day.”
Connecting with the community has already provided positive results. The Alameda Gateway Community Association has stepped in, and Elks, Kiwanis, Optimists and Rotary clubs have also addressed needs at the school. The Lakewood Faith Coalition, which is part of the City’s Lakewood Linked initiative, has adopted Rose Stein as one of its schools, which means members of the group and other volunteers will meet with the school’s leaders regularly to discuss how to help meet the school’s needs.
A rare collaboration with a health care organization will create a tangible and meaningful connection to the neighborhood and its families. For the first time in a Jeffco school, the Metro Community Provider Network will open an on-site health clinic in Rose Stein that will charge fees based on income levels. The clinic will have a separate entrance to allow residents in the area to use the clinic, which will be operated separately from the school, Valdez says. But Valdez is most excited about “having access right here” for students with health-related attendance issues who will be able to easily visit the clinic rather than miss a whole day or longer of school.
Given that Rose Stein is essentially a new school, Valdez hopes to create several kinds of partnerships in the community including with an organization that could help find ways for the school to monitor and reduce its heating and energy use. She also needs instruments for music classes and supplies for art and physical education classes. An Amazon book wish list has been launched, and Valdez is working to fill a reading tutor position she has available through AmeriCorps’ Colorado Reading Corps program.
The school also will transform academically. Rose Stein is launching the International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous academic framework that enables students to view content from multiple perspectives. “This opportunity to be part of a framework of IB is very exciting to me as an educator,” she says.
The school’s IB program fits with the IB program offered at Alameda International Junior/Senior High School, which means students from Rose Stein will have the opportunity to continue in the prestigious program from elementary through high school. It’s also helping to complete the reinvention of Rose Stein.
“We are here with open arms, ready to serve and welcome our community back,” Valdez says. “This is your school.”