A Community Changed

Ignacio Elementary School classroom

Three new schools and a new future

Stuart Coppedge, AIA, LEED AP

The small town of Ignacio, Colorado, is located in the Southwestern region of the state and is part of La Plata County. Ignacio is approximately 325 miles from Denver and is surrounded by a 1,000-square-mile Southern Ute Indian Reservation. The location of the school district has made its population tri-cultural, including Southern Ute, Hispanic, and Anglo heritages.

In 2010, the superintendent of Ignacio School District, Rocco Fuschetto, set out to change the district and the surrounding community forever. The district had been saddled with below-standard performance ratings, lack of space for educational programs, and it was losing students and staff to neighboring schools. Fuschetto invited RTA Architects’ Stuart Coppedge, AIA, to tour the site and to inspire ideas for change. Soon after, RTA, along with several other firms, presented Master Plan proposals.

RTA was appointed Lead Architect with a Master Plan containing four different options for implementing a new design for the district. Thus began a five-year-long process that would create a unified school district with three 21st century learning environments, state-of-the-art athletic and art facilities, an administration building, a transportation facility, and an entirely changed community.

Ignacio Middle School Exterior

‘Every vote counts’

The goal of the district was to increase the number of educational programs, resources, and overall student performance. Fuschetto wanted students to come to school to learn, rather than only for athletics. He also wanted to instill pride in the students, staff, and community members for the schools and the district as a whole, and to create a well-balanced curriculum that would meet the needs of students with diverse future aspirations.

The story of Ignacio is not only incredible for its overwhelming transformation, but also because it was made possible by a single vote. In October of 2011, a public vote was taken for the district to receive a bond for the proposed Master Plan and, initially, the vote resulted in a tie. The district needed one vote over 50 percent to receive the funding, so it was not granted the bond and the project was declared postponed. However, a recount of the vote the following month revealed that a single ballot had been placed in the wrong envelope. This led to a one-vote bond election victory and the ability to start the project. Now Fuschetto loves to remind everyone that “Every vote counts!”

While many schools are funded by grants and bonds from the state, Ignacio is an unusual case. The bond program has provided much more than just a single school; it has transformed an entire community. Not only did it provide a new middle school and renovations for three of the existing buildings; the bond also funded an entirely new curriculum written by Dr. Jay Thompson. Now the district has buildings that support the new curriculum’s programmatic needs, along with state-of-the-art athletic and art facilities used for school and community events.

Initially, the district owned four main pieces of land. The first parcel held district-owned rental properties, the second held the intermediate grades four to six school, the third housed the PK-three elementary school, and the fourth held buildings for the grades seven and eight middle school and the grades nine to 12 high school. The four options presented in the Master Plan by RTA Architects included a variety of well-researched renovations, upgrades, additions, and new builds for these four parcels of land.

After many discussions about how students should best be grouped, an option was chosen that required using the first piece of land for a brand new middle school, renovating the existing intermediate building into a PK-five school, and renovating the existing combined middle and high school buildings into a single unified high school campus.

RTA and the district chose not to use the existing PK-three elementary school in the new layout because it was in the worst condition out of the four existing buildings. The end result of the project for Ignacio is three distinct campuses for an elementary school (grades PK-5), middle school, and high school. This option allows for potential growth, while providing athletic facilities at the middle and high schools, and achieving the greatest flexibility for future space developments.

Throughout the five-year process, students had to be very flexible with the construction of their new and renovated schools. The first phase of the process was the construction of the brand new middle school building. During this time, students were able to stay in their respective buildings, but after its completion a district-wide game of “musical chairs” began. After the middle school was built, the sixth- to eighth-grade students moved in and the intermediate grade students were relocated to the existing junior high for phase two of the project.

After the intermediate school was renovated into the new PK-five elementary, the PK-three students and the remaining fourth- and fifth-grade students moved in. At the same time, the old wrestling and band room were being remodeled into the new administration building, including a warehouse and maintenance shop. The existing maintenance shop was even renovated into a new woodshop. This left the existing middle school and PK-three buildings empty, so the high school students were able to move into the original elementary school while the existing combined middle and high school campus was renovated.

This was most likely the toughest transition for the students because high schoolers had to adjust to using smaller facilities, such as kindergarten-sized restrooms and drinking fountains. After all of the building, renovating, and playing of musical chairs was complete, students were overjoyed to finally settle into their new educational environments.

Ignacio High School Interior

Dramatic results

The massive changes made to Ignacio School District produced dramatic results. By keeping the best parts of the existing buildings, repurposing them, and adding necessary additions, RTA was able to give the district the highest value for its hard-won dollars. The design also stayed true to the original Master Plan, which helped staff, students, teachers, and community members envision the final result without a lot of variation.

The new middle school and renovated elementary and high school buildings reinforce the district-wide standards for the new curriculum. With the help of several Design Advisory Groups comprised of designers, staff, students, teachers, and community members, this project has also allowed for the implementation of more leading-edge educational programs. For example, the district hopes to grow the performing arts program with the new state-of-the-art auditorium at the high school and students can now receive college credit from Fort Lewis College. RTA’s in-depth structural analysis and energy-saving strategies have earned Ignacio LEED Gold certification. Fuschetto noted that the district’s gas bill for March was under $200. “Five years ago, I was given a goal to improve our curriculum and our buildings. We aren't done yet.” A new transportation building will be the final item and is currently under construction on 25 acres of land purchased south of Ignacio.

Perhaps the greatest result of the project is the newly instilled pride in the students and staff for their district. Ignacio Bobcats now have a newfound respect and love for their educational and sports facilities. RTA’s Mike Riggs says, “The new middle school and renovated elementary and high school buildings give students hope, inspiration, and something they can claim as their own.” The middle and high school’s athletic facilities allow the Bobcats to host regional and local tournaments with their CHSAA-approved fields and gyms.

The district also is well-balanced and well-rounded because vocational programs were expanded and improved alongside the educational and athletic programs. This allows students with a variety of future goals to be prepared for wherever life takes them. Fuschetto says, “RTA Architects understood the needs of the district and community so they captured those needs and feelings in the design of every building. The community should be very proud because without that one vote, nothing would have been accomplished.”

The surrounding Ignacio community has also been greatly affected and is experiencing a bit of a “renaissance” because of the district-wide project. More people are moving to Ignacio and several small businesses have opened in the last few years. The existing elementary school, which was left unoccupied, is now being leased to a non-profit group and has become a community center.

Ignacio School District has been awarded the CEFPI 2014 Summit Merit Award, AIA 2014 Merit Award for Best Architecture, AIA 2014 Honor Award for Best Architecture, and the CEFPI 2013 Peak Merit Award for New Construction.

Stuart L. Coppedge, AIA, LEED AP led RTA’s Ignacio work as Principal-in Charge. He is the 2016-2017 national treasurer of the American Institute of Architects and serves on the Colorado Springs Downtown Review Board and the Board of Directors of Atlas Preparatory School.

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