Elementary school in Arden Arcade unveils new two-story building in $50-million project

Students at an elementary school in Arden Arcade might not know how to navigate their campus when they return for the first day of school Thursday.

Dyer-Kelly Elementary School, part of the San Juan Unified School District, unveiled its new $50-million campus Wednesday night with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The facility, a two-story building with an amphitheater, replaced the 70-year-old one that was falling apart.

“Everything is big. Everything is so good. I’m so happy,” said Javid Jalal, who left Afghanistan six months ago and now lives down the street from Dyer-Kelly. He has two daughters, one of whom will begin kindergarten at the school Thursday.

The 6-year-old, named Saba, does not speak English, Jalal said. But he thinks she’ll pick it up quickly at Dyer-Kelly, which has a high rate of English-language learners.

Dyer-Kelly is a Title 1 school that serves three meals a day — including dinner — and provides basic necessities like socks to its students, according to district spokesman Keith Reid.

It’s located in a diverse neighborhood, and in the 2016-17 school year, nearly 400 of its 445 students were refugees, The Bee previously reported. That same year, 96 percent of the students were eligible for free/reduced-price meals, according to Ed Data, a site that compiles statistics on schools in California.

When the new campus was being built, officials kept all that context in mind, said Cassandra Bennett Porter, former Dyer-Kelly principal. As a result, the school has seven wings, each labeled with a different continent and color scheme.

“We wanted to highlight the diverse community that attends this school,” San Juan Assistant Superintendent of Facilities Frank Camarda said. “People are coming from all over the world.”

The blue wing is Europe, the orange is Africa, the red is Asia, the green is North America, the fuchsia is South America, the yellow is Australia and the turquoise is Antarctica, Bennett Porter said.

There’s also a welcome wall near the front of the school with greetings in various languages.

“Everything you can really imagine was taken into consideration,” said Bennett Porter, now the director of elementary and K-8 for the San Juan Unified School District.

The outside of the new Dyer-Kelly campus doesn’t resemble an elementary school. It’s a tall, horizontal building with the school’s and district’s name in gray metal letters across the top. It looks more like a college, which she said was done on purpose.

“We want our kids learning at a higher level,” Bennett Porter said. So they made the building more regal-looking.

Inside, the new campus is just as sleek. There’s a big open space with gray tables and swiveling chairs for collaboration purposes directly upstairs, a library twice the size of the previous one and a multipurpose room where students can eat.

“Schools have the potential to lift a community,” said current Dyer-Kelly Principal Gianfranco Tornatore.

He believes the hardworking teachers at the school are already making an impact on students, and the new building will only help.

“This building is really only going to enhance that and give us the access and educational opportunities to support student learning,” he said.

The previous facility was much smaller, about ready to burst with 540 students, according to Bennett Porter. Enrollment has grown for several years, and there was inadequate space to support all the programs Dyer-Kelly needs, Camarda said.

The combination resulted in students trying to find nooks and crannies where they could work.

“We literally had kids working in places like the laundry room,” Bennett Porter said.

The district noticed. A bond measure was passed several years ago to improve school facilities in the San Juan Unified School District, she said. Officials toured a few campuses, including Dyer-Kelly, and rated it the lowest. The new building was the result.

The process took about two years, Camarda said. Design plans began in 2017, and construction took a little more than a year.

It’s the first new elementary school to be built in the district in 27 years, according to Bennett Porter.

“Dyer-Kelly is a great example and a symbol of San Juan’s commitment to invest in the students and families in our community,” Tornatore said.

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Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.