SAN MATEO — Rachel Share-Sapolsky gasped when she saw her school’s basketball gym — natural light gleamed off the immaculate wood floor and a rock-climbing wall rose more than 50 feet behind one of the backboards.
The school year began Sept. 3, but last week the 15-year-old sophomore got her first glimpse of the completed gym.
It was the finishing touch on the Nueva School’s new upper school campus, which serves as a prestigious anchor tenant for Bay Meadows Phase II, one of the largest transit-oriented developments in the Bay Area.
“Can we walk on the floor?” Share-Sapolksy asked Mark Schoeffel, assistant head of school at Nueva and director of the upper school.
After a moment’s hesitation, Schoeffel relented, and a small group stepped carefully onto the court.
Meanwhile, Head of School Diane Rosenberg discussed the vision underlying the elite Hillsborough-based school’s expansion to San Mateo.
The private elementary and middle school added upper school classes last year, sharing space at College of San Mateo while the 133,000-square-foot Bay Meadows campus was under construction. There are 77 sophomores and 86 freshmen enrolled this year.
“A bedrock value from (founder Karen Stone McCown) was teaching social and emotional learning,” said Rosenberg. “It’s really believing that if we teach empathy and understanding, not only does it liberate the classroom because you have open conversations, you’re not afraid of making a mistake.”
The 47-year-old school for gifted students is one of the most progressive in California, tailoring its curriculum to the individual needs of students. The student to teacher ratio is a mere 7 to 1. Nueva encourages discovery and experimentation through hands-on, project-based learning.
In teacher Jen White’s ninth-grade English class, for instance, students make pieces of art reflecting their interpretations of Dante’s “Inferno.”
Sophomore science students test the antibacterial properties of different plants on live cultures of E. coli.
Jake Mengarelli, 14, decided to launch a debate club last year. With support from teachers and administrators, the club has grown to more than 30 members and already racked up trophies.
“My favorite thing is flexibility,” the sophomore said of Nueva. “It’s set up so that you can do what you want to do with your time and explore something that you’re passionate about.”
The new campus reflects that student-focused, collaborative spirit.
Teachers don’t have offices — instead their desks are clustered in common areas, inviting interaction with students who are seated at tables in a circle. Two ninth-graders took a math quiz Thursday while sprawled on the hallway carpet.
The 3-acre campus was also designed to be environmentally friendly, getting 30 percent of its electricity from solar panels. The school is a quick walk from the Hillsdale Caltrain Station, and Nueva includes a Caltrain Go Pass with tuition, which runs up to $42,000. More than half the students regularly commute by train.
The school is the latest addition to Bay Meadows Phase II, which will eventually include more than 1,100 housing units, up to 1.5 million square feet of office space and 90,000 square feet of retail on 83 acres. So far about 300 residents have moved in.
This month developer Wilson Meany broke ground on Bay Meadows Station 4, a 210,000-square-foot office complex, and preleasing begins for Field House, an apartment community with 108 units.
San Mateo City Councilman David Lim said Nueva’s vitality is a good fit for a growing neighborhood.
“Successful schools provide a solid foundation for a community,” Lim said in an email, “and with Nueva School the city of San Mateo is fortunate to have one of the very best private schools in the nation.”
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