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OC Register: Heritage Elementary magnet school opens in Tustin with a little baggage and a lot of innovation

by Susan Goulding

The first day of school was fast approaching, yet Heritage Elementary Principal Beth Rabel Blackman was still hammering out basic logistics.

“Should we dismiss kinders at the gate or at the flagpole?” Blackman asked teachers packed around the table in a small conference room.

Launching a school year is complicated enough at the most established of sites, with teachers hauling materials from cars and organizing classrooms, counselors untangling the task of student distribution and principals soothing the concerns of fretful parents.

Mix in the debut of a brand new school and those complexities multiply exponentially.

Heritage Elementary STEAM Magnet School opens its doors Monday – at long last. The building complex was completed five years ago in the former Marine Corps Air Station, which has been transformed into the Tustin Legacy planned community.

However, when home construction stalled in the bordering Columbus Square neighborhood, low enrollment numbers shelved the school’s inauguration, leading to disgruntled residents saddled with paying off a bond for a school they couldn’t use. The city sued Tustin Unified School District in 2011 over the delay, but a judge ruled the district had the right to postpone the opening.

Hillview High, a continuation school, temporarily moved in. This year, it will hold classes at the former Lambert Elementary.

Staff members have no time to dwell on those past problems. Their attention this summer has been focused on the 280 students soon to populate the campus.

Blackman, who transferred from Helen Estock Elementary, sorted through more than 300 applications from teachers interested in the school’s emphasis on science, technology, arts, engineering and mathematics. She ended up hiring all 10 teachers from other schools in Tustin Unified for the coveted positions.

“I’d intended to bring in some from outside the district, but these teachers are so fabulous,” Blackman said.

Kindergarten teacher Lisa Ryan hopped over from Myford Elementary.

“I couldn’t pass up the chance to help shape a school from the ground up,” she said. “We’re all starting out on the same page. And we come from different schools and bring different specialties, whether in reading workshop, technology or math.”

Heritage makes its entree with a pyramid of grade levels – three kindergarten, two first grade, one second grade, one second/third combo, one third grade and one four/five combo. The school also will offer a transitional kindergarten class.

“Fourth- and fifth-graders don’t necessarily want to go to a new school at that stage,” said Blackman, who expects the student body to almost double over the next few years as kindergartners move up and word of mouth spreads.

For the time being, Heritage students will occupy only half of the site’s 20 classrooms. Some of the other classrooms will continue to house Tustin Unified administration personnel until needed for elementary students.

A couple of weeks before the grand opening, second grade teacher Felisa Gibbs made an attempt at setting up her room, but was soon reconsidering her efforts.

“Those will come down,” she said, pointing at a set of posted classroom rules that she used at Guin Foss Elementary.For one thing, Heritage teachers have since devised common expectations to display in every classroom.

For another, the presentation is a bit too, well, bright.

Classrooms are painted in earth tones. Some have murals of trees in muted browns and greens. Nowhere in sight: hot pink butcher block on bulletin boards trimmed with shiny purple borders, alphabet banners in primary colors, glittery “reading is fun” posters, fluorescent orange beanbag chairs.

The look is serene and minimalist – inspired by an educational philosophy that students benefit from a naturalistic, uncluttered environment featuring seashells, rocks, driftwood, live plants and space.

“No more constant trips to Lakeshore Learning,” Gibbs said with a laugh, referring to the traditional go-to store for teacher supplies.

“At first I was, like, what am I going to do with all my stuff?” she said. “Actually, though, this makes our lives simpler and allows more time to focus on lesson plans.”Gibbs could at least rescue her formerly festive paper lanterns by spray-painting them soft greens and blues.Blackman introduced the less-is-more idea after reading research on it.“Calm, relaxing surroundings help children focus on what is important,” she said.Another somewhat unconventional approach: The only homework will be half an hour of reading a day.“According to the data, it’s questionable whether homework serves much purpose in elementary school,” Blackman said.As a STEAM school, Heritage also will set itself apart by using technology to teach and communicate. Students often will work on iPads, and will share their assignments with teachers and parents on an app called Seesaw. Teachers will post Instagram photos of student activities on a special website. “Old-fashioned” math worksheets will be few and far between.That concept is exciting for parents either starting their children at Heritage or relocating them. And for Columbus Square residents, it means finally having a school of their own.

Oliver Winn, 7, is moving to Heritage from Red Hill Elementary because he loves paleontology.

“It’s kind of a bit scary,” Oliver said in a forthright, mature manner. “They say it’s a science school, but I don’t actually know if they’ll do that.”

His mother Sarah Winn responded to Oliver’s comment with a smile. “He has a healthy dose of skepticism,” she said, adding, “We didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity for him to attend a community school – and one with such an impressive staff.”

Visiting campus with her 7-year-old daughter Izzy, Sherry Sanborn, said she is relieved “Heritage finally came to fruition.”

“We moved here nine years ago on the promise of schools,” she said. “It hurt our community that we have not had a school to rally around. Neighborhood kids were scattered about at different schools.”

Izzy began at Tustin Memorial Academy.

Sanborn briskly signed up for a PTA position.

“Last year, I didn’t have a voice,” she said. “I just sat in the back of PTA meetings and let the veteran moms run the show. Here, we’re all building a great school together.”

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