Bees, butterflies, a steel tree: Uvalde’s new elementary school designed with students in mind

Uvalde CISD will break ground on a new school, at a new location, late this summer.

By Camille Phillips, Texas Public RadioMay 23, 2023 9:16 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Wednesday will mark one year since students last set foot inside Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed there last May in one of the worst school shootings in recent history.

Plans are underway to build a new school, in a new location, so students never have to set foot in Robb again.

Uvalde Justice of the Peace Lalo Diaz had the horrific task of identifying the bodies of the children and the teachers that died inside Robb Elementary on May 24, 2022.

“To me, the floors are all blood. You know, I see red floors,” said Diaz.

Diaz is now co-chair of a committee formed to help architects find a location and design for a new school.

He said Uvalde families need to have a fresh start in a new location that hasn’t been subject to violence.

“In Hispanic culture and in most cases probably any culture, most of the families will say, ‘How can we build something there when the devil’s there?’” Diaz said.

» MORE: Voices from Uvalde

Uvalde CISD plans to demolish Robb Elementary, but according to interim superintendent Gary Patterson, the building is still being used by investigators.
Kayla Padilla / TPR

School officials announced last summer that Robb will be demolished, but for now the building still stands, surrounded by tarp-covered chain link fences. The mounds of flowers and teddy bears piled around the school’s brick sign are gone, but 21 white crosses remain, continuing their vigil under the shade of Robb’s iconic pecan trees.

Most Robb students attended school in a makeshift space this year — an old elementary school that had been converted into administrative offices.

But late this summer, the school district will break ground on a new building that will replace Robb Elementary.

“We wanted it to be fun and exciting and make it a good environment. And then, of course, making it safe,” said Diaz.

He said it was important to him to represent the Hispanic community on the committee — especially the West Side of Uvalde near Robb.

Colorful elements inspired by papel picado decorations are incorporated into the design of Uvalde’s new school.
Courtesy Uvalde CISD Moving Forward Foundation

“Once I saw the list of the people that were asked, I thought, well, I need to be a voice for probably the community that are not educators,” Diaz said. “That was the segregation school, Robb School, where the Hispanics went when they were younger. So, there was a lot of history and a lot of importance of it being part of the neighborhood.”

Diaz said he wasn’t able to find another location on the West Side, but the architects and the committee worked together to design a school that reflects a school district that is now 90% Hispanic.

At a presentation to the school board in April, architect Jeff Rodriguez said elements representing Uvalde were incorporated into the design, like the colors of papel picado, and symbols from nature.

“Beautiful sunsets, the honeybees, the monarch butterfly migratory route that comes right through Uvalde,” Rodriguez said. “The Frio River, and then the large, beautiful trees that are in the middle of the streets.”

Nature elements representing Uvalde, like honeybees and monarch butterflies, are incorporated into the design of Uvalde’s new school.
Courtesy Uvalde CISD Moving Forward Foundation

The new school is designed around an interior courtyard so that students will have a protected outdoor space. And it will only have three exterior doors.

During a presentation to the school board in November, Kerri Brady, with the architecture firm, said special attention will be paid to things like lighting, acoustics and comfort:

“Because the district and community are moving through collective trauma,” Brady said.

At the center of the school — stretching two floors and visible from both the library and the courtyard — will be a steel tree to honor the memory of the 21 victims. Diaz described it to the board:

“It’s going to have two large limbs representing the two teachers and 19 smaller limbs representing the children,” he said. “This is going to be the center focus of the school and the vision of what we’re doing. And technically, this is holding up our school.”

Diaz said the tree symbolizes the strength of Uvalde.

The steel tree in honor of the 21 victims of the shooting at Robb Elementary will also be visible from the interior courtyard of Uvalde’s new school.
Courtesy Uvalde CISD Moving Forward Foundation

At the committee’s recommendation, the Uvalde school board chose a site adjacent to Dalton Elementary, which serves pre-k through 1st grade.

Diaz said building next to Dalton will allow it to share resources with the new school and create one campus for all of Uvalde’s youngest learners, pre-k through 4th grade.

The architecture firm, Huckabee, and the construction company, Joeris, are both donating their time to the project. H-E-B and the Charles Butt Foundation provided seed donations and created a separate foundation to raise the funds to build the school. The school district expects to break ground in late July or early August. Construction is slated for completion in January 2025.

But even as Uvalde takes this first step towards a new beginning, Diaz said it will be important to find the right way to fill the hole Robb Elementary will leave behind.

A banner hung on the outer fence surrounding Robb Elementary in honor of the two teachers who were killed during the shooting last year.
Kayla Padilla / TPR

“We know it’s going to have to be some kind of memorial, right, at that area. But … we have to be very thoughtful because we want to make sure that the neighborhood doesn’t just die out,” Diaz said.

The old Robb Elementary is set to be demolished, but for now it still stands, silent as 21 white crosses keep watch.

At a press conference on Monday, interim Uvalde Superintendent Gary Patterson said “litigation” was delaying the school’s demolition.

“We don’t have a timeline in place,” Patterson said. “We’re waiting for one more party to clear (the building).”

Once the building is torn down, Diaz said it will be just as important to carefully plan what to do with the old location as it is for the new.

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