by David Safier
I’m not easily blown away by a school. But I have to say, I was blown away during my tour of Manzo Elementary School in Barrio Hollywood this morning.
I’ll admit, when a lovely, confident, knowledgeable fifth grader escorts me through the school, talking about the place with the proud sense of ownership of someone who’s showing me her home, I get a little weak-kneed. But I grew even more impressed when I talked with the principal, Mark Alvarez, and the school counselor who’s the driving force behind the school’s ecology project, Moses Thompson. They, along with the rest of the staff and the students, have created a place that should be a model for how a school can be transformed into something extraordinary.
I went to the school tour this morning not knowing what to expect. I just wanted to see why so many people are trying to protect Manzo from being closed. As Marissa (I hope I got her name right) Melissa led me around the school, I began to wonder why TUSD is keeping the place a secret. It’s a showcase for how a creative, visionary staff can transform a school into a place where students are involved and active participants, where learning is going on inside and outside the classroom.
I was told the two Board members in favor of closing the school, Miguel Cuevas and Alexandre Sugiyama, haven’t paid a visit, at least not recently. They shouldn’t say another word about the school until they see it for themselves. (Mark Stegeman also hasn’t paid a recent visit. He has suggested the school might be closed, then opened as a district-run charter school.)
Below the fold, you can look at a few pics I took this morning, but first, here’s a brief description. Manzo is one of those classic old brick elementary schools with classrooms ringing large open spaces. The area in the top photo is a traditional grass-and-picnic-table affair, though the large rain water cistern in the foreground is a bit unusual. The back space has been completely transformed. It’s a vegetable garden, a chicken coup, a composting space and, most recently, a greenhouse that will house a hydroponic area for tilapia which is currently inside one of the classrooms — and there’s more in various states of completion.
The students are involved in every phase of the project, from planning to building to implementation (Many of them were at school on a Saturday, proudly leading tours of interested adults). Marissa Melissa was able to describe it all to me in depth, but her special area is composting. She’s one of the students who gather leftovers from the cafeteria at lunch time, which is added to the compost heap and will eventually be used to nurture the soil. (I was told by a staff member that the cafeteria waste is weighed and charted daily to try and understand why some days produce more compostable material than others.) All around the school, cisterns are hooked to roof downspouts, and they supply the project’s water. In front of the chicken coop are two charts, one numerical, one a bar chart, tallying the number and kind of eggs the chickens lay. The eggs are collected and sold.
Principal Alvarez told me the ecology project is funded by a variety of small grants. The school has interns from UA helping at the school. I met one, a PhD candidate in microbiology, shovel in hand, who sounded like he was absolutely committed to the students and the school’s mission.
Manzo has over 85% Hispanic students, and over 92% of its students are on free or reduced lunch. It’s on the school closure list because it’s underenrolled and its test scores, especially in math, are low. The staff, however, is working hard to bring up the math scores, and the fifth grade reading and writing scores are high, a very encouraging sign. The ecological project is young — it began about 4 years ago — and it’s already attracting students from outside the neighborhood. My sense is, if this school is given time to develop its mix of traditional classroom learning and desert-friendly ecological education, along with the opportunity to build the number of staff members who are committed to its innovative model, it will continue to improve, maybe even provide a model for TUSD and some much needed positive publicity for the District’s efforts to provide a variety of opportunities for its students.
The garden (with rock paths between the rows of vegetables) and the cisterns that supply its water.
The newly erected greenhouse which will be dedicated Friday (more about the dedication in a later post).
The compost piles being pecked at by chickens, whose coop is in the background.
The principal, Mark Alvarez, who attended TUSD, later taught at many of the schools he attended, and has been principal at Manzo for 3 years. Over his left shoulder is Moses Thompson, the school counselor who guided the ecology project from the beginning.