San Antonio Independent School District officials have big plans for the future of the district, and a new and renovated high school offer a glimpse into how that will look.

Funded in part by a 2016 voter-approved bond, and with more renovations underway bankrolled by the massive $1.3 billion 2020 bond, the schools have been transformed with open spaces, makerspace labs and “21st century learning environments” that turn the concept of the traditional classroom on its head. 

Members of the district’s 2020 bond Citizens Advisory Committee boarded a school bus Thursday for a tour of the two schools that trustee Art Valdez called blueprints for future renovations in the district. Of the district’s 90 campuses, 36 are slated for major improvements. 

Lanier and Burbank high schools are among 15 schools that had partial renovations through the 2016 bond and will receive additional work in the coming months. Burbank is getting a new softball field and Lanier is getting upgraded security cameras and a new sports field among other planned renovations. 

Open ceilings, natural light and collaborative spaces are key elements of the new buildings, along with LED lighting and security features.

Members of the 2020 bond Citizens Advisory Committee take a tour of the newly built Burbank High School on Thursday evening. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

All schools are receiving security upgrades with interior and exterior cameras. Air-conditioning units that are at least 15 years old will be replaced, which will benefit an additional 30 campuses, according to the district. 

Other planned projects in the 2020 bond include 21 schools whose main buildings have not been fully renovated in more than 50 years, and most with 30-year-old infrastructure.

The 2016 bond was a more modest $450 million program involving 13 campuses, which trustee Patti Radle on Thursday said was part of “piecemeal” renovations over several bonds for the schools. 

“It’s taken a long time and we haven’t been conscientious about going out for bonds regularly,” Radle said.”We’re doing that now and we’re catching up with our comprehensive high schools and making sure that we’re finishing them.”

Radle, who recently announced that she will not be running for reelection, expressed pride in the bond projects while on the tour, crediting a uniquely cohesive board with making it possible. 

“We have … developed a board that is bold enough to say what they’re thinking and kind enough to listen and come around to very good decisions … and that affects everything else we do as far as the decisions being made,” she said. “I’m proud that we’ve gotten more voices sharing what they think is important for the bond.”

The tour focused on the concept of the “21st-century classroom,” which aims to broaden the focal point of the learning experience. Instead of teaching from the front of a classroom, for example, there are options to learn, study and collaborate in every part of the building. 

Fedrico Cavazos, an associate architect with LPA who served as project lead, said the concept was more about learning environments than just individual classrooms.

“So even thinking about ceilings that might expose some of the mechanical systems, electrical systems to teach students about what goes into building environments, thinking about every wall being an opportunity for teaching in a different way inside the classroom, but then also providing a diversity of classroom sizes and amenities within a campus,” Cavazos said of the thought process that went into the renovations.

The new designs allow flexibility to upgrade and shift the school to fit a variety of needs, he added.

The campus includes standard classrooms, but also 1,000-square-foot classrooms with operable partitions that can open up to 3,000-square-foot rooms, for example, and small group rooms that are 100-250 square feet. 

Among the new features at Lanier High School is the so-called “learning stairs,” deep stairs where students can study, or where multiple classes could gather to watch speakers or participate in larger lessons. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

Yvonne Little, director of planning and construction for the district, said the concept was new to many of the bond committee members, who likened the new campuses to college buildings.

Another feature of the schools is so-called “learning stairs,” deep stairs where students can study, or where multiple classes could gather to watch speakers or participate in larger lessons, Little said. 

One architecture firm said the trending amenity is usually designed next to or near a main stairwell and has a bench-like structure.

Many committee members said they wanted to return to school after seeing the updated campus. 

“I think this is beautiful. I wouldn’t even leave this school. In fact, I’m going to come work here.” Karla Duran, the chair of the committee said. “Our goal is for all schools to be accessible, to be modern, to be welcoming.”

The first stop on the tour was Lanier High School, which was built in the 1970s. Prior to its renovation, the building had very few windows, so no classrooms got any natural light, Cavazos said. The first campus was built there in 1915.

Lanier High School’s renovations pays tribute to some features from the original campus that are significant to the community. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

“The thinking at the time when the building was designed in the 70s was that windows both to hallways and to the outside were both distractions, and … a loss of energy,” Cavazos said. The firm designed the renovation to include lots of windows, he said, because “there’s been a lot of research since that era about the impact of natural daylight views and connections on kids’ ability to learn.”

Rather than renovate the original building, Burbank High School was built from the ground up on the site of the former softball field. Another architecture firm, Garza Bomberger & Associates is responsible for that project.

Both schools integrated historic elements of their campuses into the new buildings — something that was important to the community members, according to Little and Cavazos. 

At Lanier, that included the signature brick arches at the entrance of the campus. 

“These arches are very specific, they’re very monumental on the north face,” Cavazos said.

While gathering community input during the design phase, the firm learned that the arches held great significance for the community.

The arches were transformed from an open breezeway into an enclosed space, Cavazos said, with administrative spaces and classrooms behind them on the first floor

Added security features include a vestibule that separates guests from the school when they enter. Mike Eaton, the district’s chief operations and building security officer, said other exposed windows have security film, or glazing to ensure safety.

The architects also focused on maintaining the historic murals that populated the walls throughout the buildings over the decades. 

Valdez pointed to work by his son, the artist Vincent Valdez, splashed across a brand new sky bridge at the newly constructed Burbank campus. 

Before renovations began, high-quality digitization of murals at both schools occurred, with certain pieces replicated in the new and renovated campuses. 

Art Valdez speaks about the value the murals behind him, painted by his son Vincent Valdez, have in the community.
Art Valdez speaks about the value the murals behind him, painted by his son Vincent Valdez, have in the Burbank High School community. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

The practice was enshrined into school policy in 2010, Art Valdez said, after work by the younger Valdez was accidentally painted over amid a renovation at the school, sparking outrage from the community. The policy requires the district to “attempt to contact the creator of the major art piece and consider the creator’s input relating to any removal or alteration.”

Radle, who formerly served on the San Antonio City Council, said the district’s new direction, embodied by the upgraded campuses, will allow the district the flexibility to evolve with the times, and help students move beyond just sitting at their desks. 

“I used to say when we were doing some of this work that we weren’t looking far enough down the hallway,” she said.