Public Schools Could Learn Lessons from St. Joe's

Private school performed model turnaround over the past decades

When Simon Chiu became principal of St. Joseph Notre Dame High School six years ago, the school's gymnasium was in the midst of a makeover. The gym, which visitors enter after passing a case full of basketball trophies and a display honoring St. Joe's alum and professional basketballer Jason Kidd, boasts electronic pullout seating, ceiling baffling to blunt noise and a gleaming wood floor.

The gym redo is just one piece of a $13 million renovation and expansion that has been taking place at the school over the past decade. The upgrades commenced with renovations to the school's library and a music room and continued with the construction of a new science center and renovations to the school's gym. Over the past two summers, the school also rebuilt all of its classrooms.

The upgrades are designed to create a more comfortable — and modern — learning environment at the 131-year-old, 423-student Catholic high school. They are also intended to work hand in hand with the school's efforts to integrate technology more deeply into students' learning — efforts that have placed classroom materials, grades and more just a keystroke away.

This year, the school mandated that students bring their own laptops; the school has its own wireless network.

While Alameda's public schools are struggling with $92 million in needed facilities upgrades, St. Joe's embarked on a fundraising campaign to collect the money the school needed for its makeover. In contrast to the school's new gymnasium, Alameda High School's Larry Patton Gym offers rotting floors, 1970s-era lighting and single-pane windows covered by hand-cranked curtains — items the school district may not have the money to fix.

School leaders are slated to discuss their priorities and options for funding public school repairs this fall. Funding options identified by a consultant include seeking out state funding, raising parcel taxes, forming philanthropic partnerships and asking voters to approve a bond for making the fixes — or helping to pay for some new schools.

Chiu said St. Joe's raised the money it needed from foundations and parents, alumni and friends of the school, earning some small contributions from the St. Joe's parish and pulling from the school's reserves. He said the school is "kind of investing in ourselves" and that the upgrades make students feel like they are important and that they are being invested in, too.

The effort may be no more apparent than in the school's recently renovated classrooms, paid for by a "Smart Classrooms" campaign that helped the school raise $4 million to rebuild classrooms. In addition to fresh paint, frosted dual-pane windows and tiled carpets that can be replaced on a square-by-square basis, the school's classrooms feature wall-mounted whiteboards, plenty of outlets and in-ceiling LCD projectors complete with speakers.

The classrooms are furnished with lightweight desks that can be configured however teachers see fit, and teachers' desks are built to house cords for all of their classroom tech.

Marianist Hall, which received some of the campus' most recent renovations, houses an attic art stu the school's art teacher to customize the amount of light being used, an electronic "smart board" in place of a manual chalkboard and the LCD projector, which allows students to all get the same detailed view of brushstrokes and more. Downstairs is a graphic arts computer lab lined with wide Macintosh screens and others that allow teacher Andy McKee to keep tabs on what each student is doing.

"We're training these kids to use the tools they use in college," McKee said.

Across the street lies the Anthony V. Aiello Science Center, a new, two-floor facility named after a longtime St. Joe's principal that cost $8 million to build and was opened with $250,000 worth of new science equipment. Chiu said that former students who come back for a visit say the school's facilities are better than the ones they had at college; the school created and hosts the Diocese of Oakland's science fair, which last year drew hundreds of seventh and eighth graders from 44 schools.

Chiu said the facilities changes and the school's increased use of technology have allowed students to be more collaborative and active learners, and to allow students to take more control of their own learning.

Rod Obligacion graduated from St. Joe's in 1989 and his eldest son, Sean, is a sophomore at the school now. "They have a lot more resources now than when I went there," said Obligacion, who said he hopes to send his other children to St. Joe's "and not some of the other schools that are cutting programs." Read more at


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