New Atwater school is an eco-tech marvel

05/10/2012 5:56 AM

05/10/2012 11:52 AM

ATWATER -- Carrie Harkreader can barely contain her excitement. Harkreader is principal of the new Valley Community School in Atwater, considered the most eco-friendly school campus in Merced County.

The $19 million fully state-funded facility run by the Merced County Office of Education serves 130 middle school and high school students who have been expelled from other campuses or are behind in their credits.

While it opened last fall, an official ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by about 110 dignitaries was held this week at the campus at 1800 Matthew Drive, just off Sunset Drive in Atwater.

The new campus situated on 10 acres replaces previous quarters used for the last 11 years at the former Castle Air Force Base's hospital.

"This is really exciting. This campus is beautiful and students are very fortunate to be here," Harkreader said. "There's no comparison with the hospital, which had no lighting and was very, very dark. It was hard to stay focused. This is just a brighter environment. Students are not ashamed to say they attend Valley Community School."

Jaime Quintana, the office of education's facilities planner, said the "Gen 7" modular buildings are state-of-the-art and have a life expectancy of 50 years.

"This is actually greener than most of the products out there," Quintana said. "These modular buildings are on a raised slab foundation, are lightweight and energy-efficient. We got the best money can buy and saved a third of the cost of a standard building."

Holly Newlon, the office of education's assistant superintendent of career and alternative education, said the new campus helps raise expectations across the board. Student behavior has improved, and they have pride in their campus and want to take care of it.

Like a proud parent, Harkreader shows off the 17 classrooms, conference and training room, administration building, gymnasium, library, science lab and cafeteria, set off with light yellow and green colors.

Rooms are brightly illuminated by natural light, with conventional lighting optional and hardly needed. There is a separate horticulture shop building which will include construction classes next year.

"This new school is a win-win for the students, community and environment," said Steven Gomes, superintendent of schools. "Research shows greater learning takes place when students are in an environment that is conducive to learning. This new campus provides that environment."

The new green campus will save the office of education $5,800 a year in energy costs. The Merced Irrigation District provided a $70,000 rebate for installation of the solar project. The school's modern technology is powered by an on-site 26-kilowatt solar system.

The Gen 7 modular buildings were constructed by American Modular Systems of Manteca and installed by Seward L. Schreder Construction of Redding. The buildings are 60 percent more energy efficient and 30 percent quieter than conventional classrooms.

Solar energy is provided by panels lining the awnings.

Dave Mosher, who teaches special education, English I and II, health, economics and credit lab courses, said there was a feeling of community and cohesiveness at the old Castle complex that has been continued at the new school.

"You can teach under a tree," Mosher said, "but the old campus was decrepit and not designed as a school. There is a feeling of pride students now have. It manifests itself in the lack of graffiti and the slackening of gang activities. We gained a buy-in from students."

Harkreader says that the new school is equipped with 42 cameras, and nobody gets by with misconduct. The campus has a softball field that the community can use, with basketball and volleyball courts nearby.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at

(209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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