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La Mesa Elementary The School that Changed a Community

La Mesa 1The war zone, it has been referred to by some. A physically land-locked walking community, the area is framed by Lomas and Central and Louisiana and Wyoming. One of Albuquerque's first post World War II neighborhoods, it is home to much of the City's immigrant population and largest Native American community. The low socioeconomic neighborhood is scene to high crime, gangs, and rampant drug activity. It is also where young families with children are trying to live, work, learn, and get established in America.

The area's elementary school, La Mesa, serves a large culturally and linguistically diverse group of children. The student body is represented by approximately 75% minorities, the highest minority population of any school in the Albuquerque Public Schools system. A bilingual school, non-English speaking students and parents comprise the norm, not the exception. Team teaching and a strong concern for the larger La Mesa community characterize the school which administers or hosts numerous outreach programs for children, their parents, and the greater community.

La Mesa 2In association with the city of Albuquerque, La Mesa hosts early childhood (infant to kindergarten) programs that require parent involvement. The school also administers myriad after-school programs as well as adult classes. Too numerous to list all, a few include GED and English as a second language classes, entrepreneurship courses taught by immigrant women for women, and even coat drives for kids. In addition, the Community Health Partnership as well as a city Social Services Center, offering numerous bilingual programs and courses to become naturalized U.S. citizens, are housed on the campus. "This school, unlike most, is a magnet and the center of the neighborhood," said *Barbara Trujillo, retired La Mesa principal. "Even the adults in the community have a life in the school."

La Mesa 3Due to the unique curriculum and cluster of services, a growing number of immigrant and non-English speaking Albuquerque residents have been drawn to the school since the late 1990s. "La Mesa is an excellent example of a community school," said Trey Hammond, Pastor of La Mesa Presbyterian Church located next to the school. "It offers critical learning and growing opportunities for children and adults." The church collaborates with the school in providing many child and adult programs. The La Mesa Arts Academy is soon to be launched. Coordinated, housed, and funded by the church, the Arts Academy will offer after-school classes in weaving, drawing, painting, music, dance, and photography beginning August 2006. Volunteer artists and teachers will conduct the classes.

La Mesa, founded in the 1940s and rebuilt in early 1980s on one of the smallest sites of all Albuquerque elementary schools, was long deserving of moving out of some of the portable structures and into permanent classrooms and office space. The school, an oasis in the middle of tumult, also needed to be redesigned to accommodate the multilingual and multicultural curriculum, parental engagements, special programs, and community services. Hence, in May 2003 the construction of a new 28,000 square foot school building was complete. It provides 18 classrooms, an outdoor classroom, a teaching kitchen, administrative offices, nurses' station, and counseling space. Some of the retained portables are now used for the growing number of special programs.

La Mesa 4The beautiful new permanent structure was rightly expected to meet the educational requirements of the school, and has. But, it has also profoundly and positively impacted the social conditions of the community. The La Mesa neighborhood gave the school, previous to the permanent addition, a sense of danger. The bold new building now provides the school with a stronger identity and presence in the neighborhood, one that reinforces a sense of safety and security.

La Mesa 5The school's teachers, administrators, and students, as well as parents and neighborhood representatives, expressed their safety problems, space needs, numerous special child and adult programs, and uniquely diverse demographic composition to APS and the design team. Taking the abundant feedback into consideration, APS and the architects went to work to solve their problems and meet their wishes in the design of the new building. "Schools are dynamic, living places, not just structures," said Trujillo. "It's not just a pretty building that people are going to be happy with; it's dynamic and the life aspects need to be a part of it."

Three primary goals drove the design of the new building: provide a protective safe environment; follow history precedence of early Spanish settlers in New Mexico; and reinforce and solidify the existing building while creating a larger community center. "We began design by looking at historic precedence. Spanish settlers would build a fortified compound with its exterior serving as a protective wall," said Smith. "Inspired by that precedence we designed a U-shaped structure with its open end very near the existing building." The high walls and linear arrangement of rooms form the plaza (interior of U), while the main entry fortified gate links with the past and establishes a new sensitivity for the school.

La Mesa 6Though only one story, the structure is about 20' high to allow larger windows and more natural light, as well as provide an imposing exterior message. "Security is a large degree perception," said Smith. "Rather than put razor wire over windows, we strived to make the building communicate security - provide protection but not a fortress as little kids are very impressionable." The design team also pushed the building as far as possible to the edge of street, providing more space in the plaza and creating a "street wall," an urban notion not widely observed in New Mexico. Approaching the school from Copper, one immediately observes a school building with a sense of place, an impregnable, formal presence.

La Mesa 7The adjacent then city park on the school's eastern boundary, the site of daily drug use, was incorporated by La Mesa and turned into a play area. The more controlled space and change in usage hastened the drug element out. In a reversal of the unfortunate trend in low income neighborhoods, kids at play pushed out illegal activity. Other outdoor space includes the tot lot, a playground designed just for the younger kindergarten kids, and of course the spacious plaza. Creation of the central plaza at the heart of the new campus provided open space easily accessible from the classrooms as well as from the cafeteria in the original building. The space, featuring a concrete stage on the west side, is large enough for the entire school to assemble.

With basic safety issues addressed, the design team could focus on reinforcing student learning. Education is rapidly changing, technology being only one of many influences. "Educators today have a better understanding of how children learn and the methods of how they teach are changing to keep pace," said Smith. "We allowed room for flexibility in teaching." One such flexibility feature is the private "triangle" room situated between every "pair" of classrooms with access from each. The space, used for specialized or individual teaching, reading labs, and conferences, also provides a distinctive element to the building's exterior as it protrudes from the exterior wall in a striking V or point. "We also added architectural elements that are colorful, playful, and actually teach," said Smith. One such example is the xylophone that is incorporated into the blue iron security gate.

La Mesa 8The substantial new building of brick, dominate colors of gold, intense blue, and rustic red represents more than one success story. It's an education success story. It's neighborhood beautification. It's a safety haven. And it's a neighborhood hub. While schools everywhere are becoming community centers, this is especially true in poorer areas. And in the case of the once considered at-risk neighborhood, largely defined by the many and unique needs of the ethnically and culturally diverse people, APS and the architects are most proud not of the building, but of the building's result. "I think the school has had the effect in the community that we had hoped it would," said Smith. "Families even picnic on the plaza on the weekends."


* Barbara Trujillo retired from APS August 1, 2005, having served as La Mesa principal for seven years.