Michelle Obama School ‘flexible learning spaces’ a Bay Area first

Michelle Obama School Virtual Grand Opening announced
Michelle Obama School in Richmond. (Photo by Mike Kinney)

By Kathy Chouteau

Richmond’s state-of-the-art Michelle Obama School was unveiled this morning during a Virtual Grand Opening ceremony on Facebook Live that gave the community a front row seat to what Principal Claudia Velez called “the first flexible learning school in the district and Bay Area.”

The K-6 school located at 42nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue, formerly known as Woodrow Wilson Elementary, is the first to be named after the former First Lady in Northern California and the second in the state, according to the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD).

At the start of construction of the new campus, the school’s roughly 430 students were learning at a temporary campus in El Cerrito. District students are currently learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school’s name change was approved by the district Board earlier this year after being proposed by parents and students.

The school district “pushed hard” to get Michelle Obama to participate in the event today, “but it is election season. So we will push hard again for the physical grand opening,” according to a comment posted by the WCCUSD during the online ceremony. The Standard will keep readers posted about when the in-person opening eventually takes place.

During the nearly one-hour virtual event, Velez, students and a host of stakeholders showcased what the principal called “innovative, non-traditional and learner-centered” new facilities, including the two-level school’s public plaza, community room, library and indoor-outdoor flexible learning spaces that are specially designed to remove learning barriers and to encourage collaboration.

The flexible design of the school environment allows grade levels to share learning suites, for all adults and students to learn together, according to Velez. The school’s learning suites include project rooms where learners can work individually or collaborate in groups both within and across grade levels. Indoor spaces open up onto outdoor spaces that are also conducive to learning and accentuated by natural surroundings like plants and trees.

The principal underscored that it had “taken a village to create this historical state-of-the-art learning community” and that, “Michelle Obama School, as our new name represents, is a beacon of hope for our future.”

Velez tipped her hat to the school’s teachers and staff, whose countless hours of “visioning work” over several years helped inform what “teaching and learning would look like” in the new environment.

“After two years of learning in portables, we now have a 21st century learning environment with a variety of space to meet our learning needs” said T’won Blake, the virtual event’s host and a Michelle Obama student.

Glass gates can roll down to provide access to an outdoor learning space for students.

PTA President Maisha Cole said choosing Michelle Obama as the name for the rebuilt school was an expression of their core values, “joy, agency, collaboration and community.”

“Michelle Obama’s name quickly rose to the top of our list,” Cole said, calling the former First Lady “an inspiration for all.”

County Supervisor John Gioia called the rebuilt school’s new name “a great tribute” to someone “who’s been such a great role model for those who advocate for equity and health and inclusion and justice and educational equality.”

“Michelle Obama School is the intersection of hope, the power of voice and the possibility of the future,” said WCCUSD Superintendent Matthew Duffy, who underscored that “today is about the learners” and that “the journey is just beginning.”

Velez credited Partners in School Innovation, the Chamberlin Family Foundation, Innovate Public Schools, Silicon Schools Fund, Transcend Education, Hewlett Foundation and Seneca for being “instrumental in supporting the design efforts and the creation of systems and structures that will help drive the work we do every day with our learners and community. She also credited the “masterful work” of the West Contra Costa Facilities Department, Gould Evans Architects, Overaa Construction, Superintendent Duffy and administrators and staff.

Other stakeholders who addressed viewers during today’s virtual grand opening included Michelle Obama School teacher Isabel de Conceicao, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, PTA President Maisha Cole, WCCUSD School Board member Mister Phillips, California State Senator Nancy Skinner, Uche Uwahemu, senior district field representative for State Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, Audrey Kwong, and fifth graders Aaliyah Cole and Arturo Ponce.

Viewers were treated to a live performance of “Good King Wenceslas” by the Michelle Obama School Band under the guidance of Band Director Eric Lim.

Learn more about the school here.