Fourth-grade classrooms at Clark Elementary School will be modernized this summer with new furniture and technology. The school opened in 1931. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

When Clark Elementary School students return in August, some of their classrooms will have a brand-new look.

A $1 million project to modernize Clark is scheduled to begin this week. Over the next five years, Charlottesville City Schools is planning to modernize all elementary schools to the tune of about $1 million a year from the city.

The school division formed the Facility Improvement and Planning Committee in 2016 to assess the state of school buildings and grapple with capacity issues from increased enrollment.

“The report was that our buildings were well-maintained,” said Kim Powell, assistant superintendent for finance and operations. “They have good bones, but they were clearly constructed in 1950s or so for the most part.”

Composed of several community members, teachers, administrators, city facility representatives and School Board members, the committee conducted surveys of faculty members within each school to assess their needs for educational programming and capacity. The surveys also asked faculty if they would prefer modernization of either classrooms or common areas.

Officials at Clark, built in 1931, expressed a clear desire for classroom upgrades. Powell said the administration decided to begin the process with Clark because of its age and limited options for expansion.

The city hired VMDO Architects to design the plans for modernization, beginning with classrooms in Clark. Each homeroom classroom will get new furniture that promotes mobility, flexibility and collaboration.

“Long gone are the days of students sitting upright in desks — single, individual desks,” Clark Principal Anna Isley said. “Our students have various needs and preferences, so the furniture and space will reflect that. So we need to allow for movement in the room.”

All blackboards will be replaced with whiteboards. Some rooms will be updated with new paint and flooring, and most classrooms will receive new technology.

However, the fourth-grade rooms will see the most dramatic revamp, including new sinks, cabinets, movable whiteboards and reading nooks.

“We’re trying to make the fourth-grade [classrooms] the model of what we are working to so that everyone has the vision of what a modern classroom really looks like in that building,” Powell said.

As the school prepared for the project, VMDO relied heavily on feedback from the faculty at Clark, as well as some of its students. A few of the fourth-graders drew designs for the new classrooms that were used in the plans.

Isley said she introduced these students to a few architects at the end of the school year, giving them the opportunity to learn a little more about the design process.

Project manager Michael Goddard said the project will be different for each school. For Clark, the focus is on historical preservation.

“We are interested in accentuating the old building of Clark, and doing things to preserve and keep it functional for modern learners without making drastic changes,” Goddard said. “All we have to do is uncover what is there and preserve it, and it functions just great in a modern educational environment.”

The construction is expected to start within the next week and finish before the first day of school, Aug. 22.

Charlottesville City Schools also plans to modernize Jackson-Via Elementary next year.

In the fall, the Charlottesville School Board will continue to discuss potential facilities expansion to accommodate enrollment growth.

In 2017, the school division hired VMDO to calculate the enrollment capacities of each of its schools, evaluate growth projections and provide recommendations to address facility needs.

VMDO found that five of the city’s six elementary schools were over their functional capacities — 85 percent of an elementary school building’s maximum capacity. Jackson-Via was the only elementary school that had not reached this threshold.

Walker Upper Elementary’s enrollment exceeded the school’s functional capacity this year, and Buford Middle School is projected to do so by the 2019-20 school year.

The division has purchased a new modular classroom this spring that will be placed at the school with the greatest need for additional capacity. A similar “learning cottage” was installed at Greenbrier Elementary in 2017.

In April, Charlottesville City Schools announced it would wait to receive new enrollment data this fall and hold more community meetings before deciding which expansion projects to pursue.

According to the statement, community members had voiced support for creating a centralized preschool facility, and for building a new elementary school instead of expanding existing elementary schools. However, consensus was not reached on a proposal to relocate fifth-graders from Walker to the elementary schools.