Case Studies

Pedro Avila – Simi Valley Unified School District

Renovating every inch of digital and physical space

In 1939, Bing Crosby sang “An Apple for the Teacher,” referencing the tradition of students bringing teachers the fruit often associated with knowledge. The practice may have begun on the western frontier in the late 1800s when students—and their families—were responsible for housing and feeding their teachers.

The frontier revolved around community and, according to Pedro Avila, the Simi Valley Unified School District in California has the same focus, but with a modern twist.

Pedro Avila | Director of Facilities and Planning | Simi Valley Unified School District

As bytes became as important as bites, Avila says SVUSD sought to provide digital enhancements as well as any other electronic and physical tools needed by students, teachers and staff for a productive learning and working environment.

Avila says he and the staff also consider how these educational facilities can be used by the surrounding communities when the school day ends. An auditorium, for instance, can double as a community center for local theater and meeting space for nonprofit organizations, he says.

“Our goal is guided by a vision that starts at the top, with the district superintendent and the school board, where it’s agreed upon by both parties,” Avila says. “The vision is then approved by the community, and our work is to implement that vision as best as possible with the resources available.”

Thinking outside the (school) box

Avila recalls that, in the 1960s and 1970s, talented architects designed and built many of Simi Valley Unified School District’s schools and ancillary buildings—administration, maintenance and security, among others. The district is constantly upgrading and building with some structures reaching their hundredth birthday in 2026 and some just breaking ground.

Working in conjunction with 15 architectural firms and the district state architect, who must approve each project, Avila, who has a bachelor’s in architecture, is involved in everything from building new arts, science and academic classrooms to renovating existing classrooms and sports fields.

“I enjoy the responsibilities that constantly keep me busy, such as collaborating with several departments, from maintenance and custodial to security and bond-funded construction programs,” he says. “Yet, I’m also fortunate that I get to see results of our collaborations with every project that we complete.”

Pedro Avila | Director of Facilities and Planning | Simi Valley Unified School District

Those projects include a broader use of educational spaces. One such example is a project that began in 2016 and concluded in November 2020: a multipurpose building addition to an elementary school built in 1969.

During the day, the school uses it as a cafeteria, and in the afternoon, classes begin using it as a performance area and stage. After school, it transforms into a community events space that residents often use for enrichment programs, ranging from arts and sciences classes to a place for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well as the local chess and sewing clubs.

“I always try to obtain direct feedback by speaking to principals, students, faculty and community members, like parents, to see what improvements and upgrades worked … and which ones we need to integrate into future projects,” Avila explains.

As easy as ABCDE Fidget

Just as Pedro and Simi Valley Unified School District are liberating spaces from traditional uses, they’re also following SVUSD’s initiatives to change methods of teaching and learning, right down to the seats.

“A classroom is a space that contributes to the education experience. Not every student learns in the same manner,” Avila explains, “so why should they have the new seats with desks always rigidly lined up in the same old traditional grid pattern?”

SVUSD launched a renovation project in 2017. Avila is helping revamp a total of 950 classrooms, with each classroom costing around $30,000 to upgrade. Some, like science labs, carry a higher price tag. These renovations—about 50 percent complete and expected to wrap up by 2029—include everything from green lighting to energy-efficient air conditioning units and new furniture.

Pedro Avila | Director of Facilities and Planning | Simi Valley Unified School District

Renovated classrooms have new desks and chairs with wheels, allowing for group work among students. They also provide several seating options, such as stationary chairs or stools that wobble slightly, for students who learn better when they can fidget.

“We are creating classrooms that provide more flexibility,” Avila explains. “Think about how coffee shops provide high stools, standard chairs and armchairs for the comfort of adults. Schools should cater to students as much as retailers often cater to consumers.”

Making the digital grade

Part of that classroom flexibility arises from digital upgrades and the understanding that paper—textbooks, worksheets and other printed educational materials—is rapidly becoming obsolete, Avila says. As such, Simi Valley Unified School District is providing each student in its 28 schools—elementary, middle and high school—with Chromebooks

Students aren’t the sole beneficiaries. Smartboards and Wi-Fi capabilities help teachers embrace new methods of teaching.

Pedro Avila | Director of Facilities and Planning | Simi Valley Unified School District

“Teachers are released from standing in front of a blackboard,” Avila says. “They can now access and manipulate information from anywhere in the classroom. This creates a more relaxed environment that can lead to more organic communication between students and teachers.”

He gets to see first hand how these enhancements impact a new generation of students. With a 19-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, he watches his children experiencing school at different levels and sees how the changes he and Simi Valley are making now will impact students for years.

However, Avila doesn’t always have his mind in the classroom. He also loves traveling California with his children and wife of 22 years. With the former being avid fans of Star Wars, the family plans on visiting the famous Muir Woods in San Francisco.

Yet, no matter where he is, he never forgets about the Simi Valley community and the importance of his work.

“Ninety percent of these school projects are bond funded, which means the citizens of Simi Valley are providing these funds,” he says, “so we make sure we use every dollar to enhance education and community living for everybody.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VIII 2021 Edition here.

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