Jan. 12, 2018
Private funding transforms student-centered space
Tucked just inside the Upper St. Clair High School’s nutrition center is a space for students to hangout, relax, talk with friends, finish homework, play games and grab a snack. For years, the space – simply known as the Commons – was underutilized and often just overlooked.
As part of the Reimagining the High School initiative, the Commons underwent a transformation during the previous school year. Renamed café321, the student-centered space was officially dedicated on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.
Although it has inspired many creative tagline puns, the new name – café321 – was derived from its room number, 321. The bright colors mirror the palette used in the school’s Innovation Hub, located just down the hall. Carpeting and pendant light fixtures help to create a warm atmosphere. Flexible furniture offers several small-group seating options with charging stations nearby. Cushions were added to the existing built-in wooden benches that line the walls.
For juniors and seniors who experienced the before and after, the contrast is significant.
“Just from walking into café321, students now see a colorful room with their peers hanging out or playing ping pong, whereas the Commons just lacked that vibrant atmosphere,” Lexi Feldman, USCHS junior, said. “Not only are there lots of charging outlets, which are very useful for all of the technology used by students, but there is also the factor of seeing other students playing games and relaxing with their friends.”
The old water fountains were replaced with a water bottle refilling station and brightly colored artwork from the school’s Innovation Hub cover the cabinet doors.
“Personally, I love the water bottle refilling station, which not only quickly refills your water bottle, but also helps eliminate plastic waste at the same time!,” Lexi added.
The purpose of reimagining the space was to fulfill the vision set by Upper St. Clair School District’s four strategic plan goals embedded within Social Emotional Learning, Time and Schedule, Technology, and Professional Learning Communities.
“The effort to repurpose café321 is in alignment with the Social Emotional Learning goal,” Dr. Lou Angelo, high school principal, said. “Research indicates students prosper academically when they have time and opportunity for rest and relaxation.”
Many of the changes were the result of feedback provided by students via an online survey and group discussions. As a result of student feedback, game tables including foosball and pingpong game tables, which were part of the Commons, were also included within café321.
“café321 is inviting and a huge change in scenery,” Savannah Smith, USCHS junior, said. “Students are more relaxed and can release pent up energy by playing games and talking with their friends.”
Savannah estimates that use of the space has more than tripled since the transformation.
In addition to the physical space, café321 also offers a reimagined café. At the window, adorned with a black awning emblazoned with the café321 logo, students can order a variety of items including seasonal fruit smoothies. The café also offers breakfast sandwiches in order to extend the breakfast hours for students.
In response to funding challenges, approximately six years ago Upper St. Clair School District created an Office of Advancement in order to connect community members and granting organizations with strategic initiatives that enhance the district’s educational program. The transformation of café321 was made possible through the support of Chuck and Amy Billerbeck, longtime Upper St. Clair School District advocates, and the high school’s PTSO.
“These partnerships have been crucial in launching initiatives that would simply not have been possible due to funding challenges that face all Pennsylvania public schools – including Upper St. Clair,” Dr. Patrick T. O’Toole, superintendent of schools, said. “We are excited about many of the projects on the horizon and what they will mean for our students and our community. We are always open to new individual funding opportunities to support our students and programs.”
Other privately funded initiatives include the Innovation Hub@USCHS, which opened in 2014 and includes a MIT-certified FAB Lab and SHOP@USC; the Innovation Hub@Boyce and SHOP-Boyce@USC; the Innovation Hub@Fort Couch; and the development of the Professional Learning Communities model in all six USC schools.