What does a 21st Century classroom look like?

For some classrooms in the El Paso Independent School District, it might look like anything but traditional with features such as dry-erase desks, flexible seating and drink holders for students.

The district on Wednesday held a furniture expo at Burges High School, where community members were invited to test drive options for refurnishing 17 schools and learning spaces, funded through the $668.7 million bond approved by voters in 2016.

“We’re having this expo to get a feel for what people like, so we know what to look for,” said Margaux Dalbin, coordinator for bond outreach at EPISD.

Students, parents and teachers visited with several furniture vendors and tested out the pieces by scribbling, sitting and stress-testing.

Burges sophomore Marina Larkins said some of the furniture could help her peers have focus in class.

“Kids are going to be messing around in their desks,” Larkins said. “For example, the desks they have with the cup holders — even though some teachers say you can’t have drinks, kids are always going to have drinks — so might as well have a place for them to hold them. And kids are going to write on the desk, so you might as well just get one where you can erase it.”

 

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Gone are the days of square fiber-board desks with names carved into the top and wads of chewing gum stuck to the bottom.

There were no stiff, skin-pinching seats on display Wednesday. Instead, vendors touted versatile hexagon-shaped desks, made of plastic, that can be easily rearranged and fit together in a number of ways. 

There were desks with adjustable heights that could be converted into standing desks. There were brightly colored chairs that rocked and swiveled, which vendors said could help fidgety children release some energy. There were even desks with built-in USB ports and outlets.

Aaron Evans, a representative for the vendor Virco, said innovative classroom furniture can help facilitate all styles of learning, so that students aren’t expected to adhere to a one-size mentality.

“You’re giving students a choice in how to interact with the material,” Evans said. “Do I wanna sit still or rock? Do I wanna sit up high or down low? And you’re giving them the option and how they’re going to interact and collaborate.”

Dalbin said each of the 17 schools that are scheduled for bond projects will receive furniture depending on what work is being done at the school.

About 6 percent of the bond, or some $31 million, will be spent on furniture, Dalbin said.

“The extent of the furniture depends on the scope of the project,” Dalbin said. “Some projects are getting a new fine arts addition, so they’ll get furniture for the fine arts addition. It depends on the scope.”

Christina Balderama, an early childhood teacher at Collins Elementary School, said she was mainly focused on student safety in evaluating the pieces, but liked the innovative designs for her students.

“We want to make sure our students are capable of not playing around, and for safety,” Balderama said. “I liked one of the tables, the dry erase. Especially because they’re learning how to write. They can (use it to ) write things like sight words and spelling words.”

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EPISD trustees will make the ultimate decision on which vendor wins a bid for the furniture, district officials said. Public input from the expo and from board committees will be taken into consideration, and administrators from the Facilities and Construction Department will make the final recommendation to the board.

Patty Lawkins, Marina Lawkins’ mother, said she wishes more students would have turned out to test the furniture, because they’re going to be the ones using it.

“The more comfortable they are in their classroom, I think that provides a better learning environment,” Patty Lawkins said. “The regular school desks, the ones I grew up with, were so uncomfortable. But these are so innovative and fresh. I think that’ll make them learn if they’re comfortable.”

Sara Sanchez can be reached at 546-6147; ssanchez@elpasotimes.com; @siempresarita on Twitter.