Construction of Palencia—which incorporates systems designed to keep energy, operating, and maintenance costs down—wrapped up this summer.

When students entered Palencia Elementary School in St. Augustine, Fla., for the first time in late August, they stepped into a high-tech, futuristic school focused on environmental sustainability.

About 500 kindergarten through fifth-grade students crossed the xeriscaped campus of St. Johns County’s newest school, which will emphasize a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

“We want to make the building a teaching tool,” Principal Don Campbell said.

Palencia incorporates systems designed to keep energy, operating, and maintenance costs down while protecting the environment. The school is also the district’s pilot site for implementing digital textbooks. It’s expected to serve as a model for schools statewide.

The school’s classrooms are crammed with cutting-edge technology. Students will use computers—both tablets and desktop models, as well as electronic readers—for their class work. About 20 percent of the school’s books will be electronic. Teachers have the latest interactive whiteboard system, as well as other digital instruction tools for their lessons.

“It’s a huge engagement factor for the kids. Keeping their attention, it allows them to practice skills and allows us to assess them individually,” Stephanie Bozard said of some of the digital programs she’ll use to teach her second-grade class. “They think it’s a game, because it’s usually put in game format with kid-friendly graphics and images.”

The school’s biggest innovation, however, is cool. Literally.

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Palencia makes ice at night, when energy use and temperatures are lower. During the day, the ice is used to cool the building via a system in which water is pumped through a series of pipes surrounded by the ice. Because it isn’t running its chillers during the day, the school is saving “a huge amount of energy costs.”

Windows in one of the air handler rooms allow students to see how fans blow over the cold water pipes, sending cool air through the vents and into classrooms.

“Part of the project is making sure we are teaching the kids about the environment and how this school operates …,” Campbell said. “And that also plays into the STEM curriculum and also the Common Core standards. It’s real-world experiences.”

The school also will focus on healthy living, said Laurel Madson, a parent of three students at Palencia and the co-president of its Parent Teacher Organization.

The school boasts organic and hydroponic gardens, with rain water collected on the roof to irrigate the plants. All of the cafeteria’s meals will be made from scratch with natural, minimally processed and nutritious ingredients, such as sweet potatoes and whole-grain pasta in the school’s state-of-the art kitchen. They will be serving up lessons on nutrition along with good eats, said Kathleen Damiano, food service manager.

“As a mother, that it is a healthy living school is really important, because the school is preparing the children for a healthy lifestyle for life,” said Madson.

Palencia is the second new school that Campbell has opened in the county. In 2007, he opened Wards Creek Elementary School.

“It is so exciting, because you get to build the culture from the ground up. So, you work with the students, the teachers, the parents and make the school what they want it to be,” Campbell said.

Copyright (c) 2012, The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.). Visit The Florida Times-Union online at www.jacksonville.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

For more school construction news, see:

Anatomy of a school construction project

Schools moving away from hallway lockers

‘Building Excellence’ section of eSN Online