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School buildings tell stories about our changing world

A courtyard at Park Road Montessori, where now-outdated architecture gives classrooms easy access to the outdoors.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
A courtyard at Park Road Montessori, where now-outdated architecture gives classrooms easy access to the outdoors.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

My recent visit to Park Road Montessori School brought a vivid reminder that school buildings tell fascinating stories.

The 75-year-old school is slated for demolition after staff and students clear out this summer. I walked the halls and grounds with two students and teacher assistant Heather Ruckterstuhl. She calls Park Road “a beautiful wreck,” showing its age but infused with joy.

We stood in a covered walkway, looking out at a school courtyard on a rainy day. The air was rich with jasmine, and a Carolina wren provided the soundtrack. Young students sat at a covered picnic table enjoying a snack. The now-outdated “Florida-style” architecture that swapped indoor halls for covered walkways and classroom doors to the outside remains, in many ways, ideal for a magnet program that emphasizes being outside in nature.

Teacher assistant Heather Ruckterstuhl (left) with Celia Kaul and Ada Lee Smith in a flowery courtyard at Park Road Montessori.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Teacher assistant Heather Ruckterstuhl (left) with Celia Kaul and Ada Lee Smith in a flowery courtyard at Park Road Montessori.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools facilities manager Dennis LaCaria later told me that Park Road and Chantilly, which are both Montessori magnets today, were built as neighborhood schools for white students in 1949. That was before the city of Charlotte’s school system merged with Mecklenburg County Schools. News accounts from the time show that Charlotte City Schools diverted money that had been promised to build new schools for Black children, leading to a lawsuit that shapes the way school bonds are handled today, LaCaria said.

I marveled when sixth-grader Celia Kaul told me Park Road includes a Cold War-era bomb shelter. I’m part of the postwar Baby Boom generation that was raised by adults who feared the Russians would drop a nuclear bomb on us. Many of my counterparts remember “duck and cover” classroom drills, based on the bizarre premise that being under a desk would provide protection against the blast (in my Indiana school these were cast as tornado drills).

Was the fallout shelter real?

I figured I’d better check that out. Both LaCaria and Park Road Principal Jennifer Moore told me the story is a school myth. They said the room that’s widely believed to be a former bomb shelter, accessible by outdoor stairs leading to an underground door, was originally a room used for a coal furnace. LaCaria says the school itself once had fallout shelter signs, but there wasn’t an actual shelter.

But retired teacher Anna Hurdle says they’re wrong. She was part of the Montessori magnet program’s move from Amay James to Park Road in 2002. She remembers seeing the yellow-and-black fallout shelter signs on the outside staircase. At that point, she said, the door was locked and the space used for storage. Teachers joked about clearing it out and turning it into an underground lounge where faculty could unwind after a long week.

“That year, when school ended our principal had secretly cleaned out the shelter that had become a junk room and decorated it for an end-of-year celebration in the much-anticipated bomb shelter,” Hurdle said. “Sometime after that occasion, the shelter was converted to house the heating system.”

Hurdle doesn’t remember details about the room, but she says it wasn’t big enough to shelter all the students, let alone the neighborhood. “It's as if these shelters were built to protect folks from worry more than from actual attacks,” she said.

Signs of today’s times

Now, of course, schools are designed to deter disturbed individuals who might show up to open fire with high-powered weapons. That means limiting access points, locking doors and creating “security vestibules” for screening visitors before giving them access (one of the reasons those Florida-style multibuilding campuses are out.). Bomb drills have been replaced by lockdowns, and today’s kids learn how to barricade doors, escape through windows and fight if they have to.

The latest North Carolina school facilities guidelines have multiple pages on safety — how to minimize playground injuries, avoid creating unsupervised areas, leave space for metal detectors and limit access by intruders. There’s even a related acronym: CPTED, for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

There’s no mention of bomb shelters, and the days of legally segregated Black and white schools are long gone. But decisions about school construction are still shaped by the legacy of racism and broken promises. Consider the long-overdue plan to build a new Second Ward High School, to replace an all-Black school in uptown Charlotte that was demolished in 1970.

New schools are designed to accommodate today’s technology. Computer labs are becoming obsolete, as classrooms that used to be designed for desks and a chalkboard now include wiring and support for everyone to plug in Chromebooks. As LaCaria notes, that requires better cooling systems, because a couple dozen laptops running all day generate additional classroom heat.

Designing energy-efficient and environmentally responsible buildings is also a theme, made ever more urgent by the escalating climate crisis. The state guidelines note the trend, but also sound a caution against adopting new technology too quickly. “Materials and equipment of specialized systems should have proven records of long service life with minimal maintenance,” the manual says.

Pulling it all together

When this school year ends, Park Road Montessori will close for good, reopening two miles away as Sedgefield Montessori in August. That building is 22 years old, and LaCaria says upgrades will synthesize the traditional and the new. A safer security vestibule will be put in, but CMS also plans to build gardens and other outdoor spaces that include easy access from classrooms.

Peace poles, plantings and memorabilia will make the move. CMS is trying to figure out whether the wooden “peace pagoda” that sits in front of Park Road Montessori can be hauled to the new site. And the students, faculty, parents and community groups that turned Park Road Montessori into a wooded sanctuary in the heart of Charlotte say they’ll set to work turning Sedgefield’s 14-acre campus into something equally verdant — while building their own stories in a new place.

A wooden "peace pagoda" is part of the landscape at Park Road Montessori School.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Park Road Montessori School sits on wooded grounds just off one of the busiest roads in south Charlotte.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.