A group of problem-solving first and second graders in Kansas are designing homes – and they’re not talking Legos.
The students at Limestone Community School, a small elementary school in Lawrence, are working with architectural experts to combat their city’s homeless problem.
A point-in-time count of unsheltered people living in Lawrence one night last year showed 232 without a permanent home, according to the City of Lawrence’s Housing Initiatives Division.
Limestone’s students plan to have four homes built with the help of local partners, according to teacher Madeline Herrera. They’re aiming to raise $120,000 for building materials, she said.
“We could potentially start building as soon as late April, should everything fall into place,” Herrera told USA TODAY.
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‘What if everyone had parents and a home?’
The project-based-learning-focused microschool, which opened last fall and plans to add third and fourth grades next year, teaches kids to solve tangible community issues, according to Herrera.
“That could be at the school level, within the city, nationwide or global, but it should be something that they’re concerned about,” said Herrera, an educator of 11 years who teaches a combined first and second grade class at Limestone.
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They addressed plastic pollution in a previous project. Now, they’re turning their attention to homelessness. After their return from winter break, the simple question of “what if?” posed by a LeVar Burton book Herrera read to her students helped spark the idea.
“One of the students said, ‘what if everyone had parents and a home?’ and other students started getting really interested in that idea and wanted to explore (it),” Herrera said.
She asked her students what they would need to be part of a solution.
“We realized how many were homeless in Lawrence,” said student Quillan Dutro, 8. “In the winter with how many … are dying because they’re homeless, we needed to fix something.”
The solution, the kids decided, was to design and build homes for those in need.
“We have multiple organizations that have offered us to be able to build on their land, and then they would manage the properties, which is an absolute dream for us,” Herrera said.
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Young students learning to dream to scale
Steve Vukelich, vice president of collaborative design company Multistudio, is working with Limestone’s students to design the homes. There was a bit of a learning curve at first.
“We quickly learned the concept of scale is really difficult for first and second graders to grasp; the kids dream really big,” Vukelich told USA TODAY.
“They had elaborate designs, and we had to find ways to show we (can’t) fit 12 rooms on the first floor of a 400-square foot home,” he said.
Several hands-on activities teaching students to tape measure their more than 1,000-square-foot classroom and count floor tiles helped them design more realistic spaces, according to Vukelich.
“(They) looked at their own restrooms, kitchen cabinets, and (we) just asked them questions like, ‘does that seem big enough? Is there enough room to move around the bed? How does this work in your home?” Vukelich said.
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The kids narrowed the rooms of each home down to essential spaces: bedrooms, a living area, a kitchen and a bathroom, according to Herrera.
“We had to add an upstairs because we only were able to fit four rooms downstairs,” said student Lucy Muller, 7, about one of their designs.
‘They care for their community’
One of the homes they’re designing is likely to be built for one of the school’s kindergarten teachers, Sarauniya Pelts.
The first-year teacher and single mother of three is enrolled in the Tenants to Homeowners program run by the Lawrence Community Housing Trust.
“When we build our home on the land, (Tenants to Homeowners) will manage it and will find tenants,” Herrera said.
Her students were excited to learn Pelts was on the list for a new home – but disappointed that she faced a yearslong wait despite being approved.
“They have several homes, but they’re more for single-people housing, or they have two-bedroom homes that don’t fit my family’s needs,” Pelts told USA TODAY.
Limestone’s students felt her wait was “unfair,” Herrera said, so they’re designing one of their homes for Herrera’s colleague.
Pelts said she cried when she first heard.
“It means so much because they want to show they care for their community, and my family was included in that,” Pelts said.