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More Than Building Buildings: A History Rooted In Unique Learning Spaces
Rachel Freeman

Can bricks and mortar teach values? Can a campus support an educational mission? At Nueva, the answer is yes.

Education—especially one grounded in gifted learning—is highly sensitive to location. 

The spaces in which we educate our students have a material impact on how they feel, how they learn learn, and what they learn. From our earliest moments, and throughout childhood, our physical environment stimulates and shapes our mind and body. Pre-K students tumbling out of their classroom and charging across the lawn at recess likely will look back fondly on memories of the places that nourished their intellectual, emotional, and creative growth. Nueva has seen a lot of growth since our founding in 1967 in an old house in Menlo Park, to the 1971 move to the Hillsborough campus with its heavily wooded 33 acres and historic mansion, to the 2014 expansion to a high school campus in San Mateo. Through it all, we have provided spaces that connect students with the natural world, and—with the addition of several LEED-certified buildings—teach them about our community’s environmental impact. Nueva’s buildings and grounds nourish our students’ growth, not only as places in which they learn  but also as places where they can experiment, take risks, play, create, and seek adventure. 

When Diane Rosenberg arrived as head of school in 2000, she shared  a vision that has helped grow our school programmatically and in size and scope. This vision—supported by a continuous stream of committed, determined, and talented parents—has truly transformed Nueva as a leader in gifted education.

Read more about the people and passion behind Nueva’s transformative history over the last 19 years.

 

THE LONGER STORY

In 2000, the Nueva community had already united under the leadership of Diane Rosenberg to build the Gymnasium/Community Center (GCC) and upgrade the adjacent athletics field. However, the small middle school of 150 students was housed in a quad of buildings never intended to be permanent, and the beloved mansion suffered from deferred maintenance and needed a seismic retrofit. Nueva’s mission and values were strongly held in place, and the pedagogy was world-class, but the buildings were a problem. 

 

When real estate investor Dennis Wong and his family first visited the school, the magic of Nueva was readily apparent. And, to his professional eye, so were the problems. 

“We fell in love with the school, right from our first visit at the start of the application process,” Dennis said. “When we saw the engagement of the kids and how different it was from other schools, we knew it was a great place for us.” 

 

Dennis noticed that the buildings and grounds had not kept pace with the quality of the education. However, some people didn’t think this was an issue. Dennis remembers people asking, “Why spend the money? With the educators we have, we could teach the kids in cinder block buildings and they’d have a great education.” 

 

Dennis thought otherwise. “People are inspired by buildings,” he said. “It’s an all-encompassing, holistic approach. We started with a modest goal—the campus needed to be upgraded to match the level of the education.”

 

For Terry Lee, Nueva’s associate head of school, it was absolutely essential to expand Nueva’s student capacity to truly serve the needs of this niche cohort of students. Having a larger student body would provide Nueva with the financial support it needed  to expand the diversity and breadth of the curriculum. 

 

“When Diane came in, she sought to salvage the mission of Nueva,” he remembered. “She had to rehire staff, re-enroll the middle school, and she understood that finance and buildings are an essential support to the mission and pedagogy, not the other way around. But in order to inspire the next generation, it was clear we needed to serve the breadth of the students’ needs, and inspire them. Diane had the capacity to imagine and inspire—but also to execute.

 

Imagining a New Future

 

In 2004, Board Chair Noel Perry asked architect and Nueva parent Libby Raab to launch an architecture competition using a non-traditional, open-ended brief of the project for a “Hillside Learning Complex.” According to Libby, “All the architects appreciated that Nueva was unique, but the ones who were closest to our target were the big thinkers.” 

 

Bill Leddy eventually won the bid. What stood out for him about this project was “the synchronicity of values between architecture and education.” He dreamed of buildings that teach and that provide innovative spaces for students to express their engagement with the world. He also appreciated Diane’s appetite for innovation in parallel with sustainability. 

 

“I was already inspired by design thinking, partly through knowing the folks at IDEO,” Bill noted. “I was particularly interested in how open Diane was to trying new things. Coming from the very top, [her] willingness to be experimental [and] let the architecture be a canvas, generated enormous energy.” 

 

From Libby’s perspective, this curiosity and playfulness was central to the creative process. 

 

“As it evolved, the architects got excited; we really tried to figure out how to further the programming for students and [we] let that lead the way,” she said.

 

Before the Hillside Learning Complex was constructed, the land consisted of old cypress trees, which were used by students as a much-loved natural playground. When the students heard that the trees would need to be removed to make way for the new building, they created a campaign entitled, ““We Speak For the Trees.” While it was ultimately decided by the leadership team that the trees needed to be removed, they were reincorporated, by being milled and refashioned into decorative screens which still grace the building today. 

 

Achieving a Literal, and Metaphorical, Groundbreaking 

As the project progressed, a collaborative effort led to the creation of the I-Lab, now a cornerstone of the fabric of the school. The I-Lab physically and philosophically catalyzed the integration of design thinking into the curriculum, and now it’s hard to imagine a Nueva without it! 

 

“Diane was talking to David Kelley [founder of IDEO, creator of the Institute of Design at Stanford, and the father of a Nueva student],” Libby said.  “That’s the moment they came up with the idea of bringing a design thinking curriculum to Nueva.” When the I-Lab came together with the building plans it came together with the I- Lab, it was the jewel in the crown. No school had anything like it, so Nueva embarked on a journey that, from inspiration to implementation, was new for everyone involved. Libby explained the process.

 

“We had a ground-breaking ceremony at the start of the Hillside Learning Complex project and then a ribbon cutting at the end, and it really felt like we had created a cohesive team. We got it right. We did something big—not just cookie cutter, but custom built for that property. The whole project was literally, and metaphorically, ground breaking.”

 

In September 2007, the school opened the doors of the Hillside Learning Complex, a 21,000-square-foot  complex filled with natural light and high ceilings, a student center, café, a library and media center, and a state-of-the-art I-Lab. Built on the principles of environmental sustainability, the facility features solar energy, natural light and ventilation, recycled and sustainable building materials, and a living roof, enhanced by resource monitors that enable students and staff to monitor the energy and water usage of the facilities. It functions as a powerful environmental teaching tool and many Nueva teachers create lessons about  solar energy, living buildings, and water conservation systems. 

 

The influence of this project has been deep and long lasting. The complex achieved LEED Gold certification and quickly garnered multiple awards including being named one of the AIA COTE 2008 Top Ten Green Projects across the United States. From the very start, this building has been central to Nueva’s Mission II, to reach teachers, students, and administrators by engaging the education community around the world; organizations have been inspired by Nueva to create their own green campus facilities. 

 

New Horizons

As is the Nueva way, there is still work to be done. 

 

The day we moved in [to the high school] was the day we started remodelling,” Terry said. . “You might look at that and see fiddling with a $90 million dollar project—but we were learning. If it matters, we’ll find a way to do it.We want to do better–it’s a relentless willingness to improve.”

 

The learning, adaptation, and transformation continue to flow in a way that’s unique to Nueva. “Imagine if you could see a kindergartener 10 years from now and be able to adjust your approach to allow her to be the best version of herself,” Terry said.  

 

Just as the buildings have enriched and transformed the possibilities for students and faculty members, they have also catalyzed an evolution of the organization itself. For the many members of the community who have invested their passions, skills, and sheer will into making these developments happen, there is clearly a sense of deep satisfaction and pride, and also a sense of the school as coming of age. The building projects and increased capacity have undoubtedly shaped the culture, as well. At the Hillsborough campus, the new café and environmental center are scheduled for completion in summer 2020, and the humanities center for the following spring. We have come a long way from our roots in Menlo Park, and while we have grown, we have never lost sight of staying true to our school’s mission. 

 

 



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