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Innovative New School Building Promises New Learning Experiences For Cicero Kids

CICERO, Ill. (CBS) -- CBS 2 was there as construction crews scrambled to get a brand new school ready for students.

But can a building really make a difference in how students learn? CBS 2's Vince Gerasole found out the City of Cicero thinks it can, and it is investing tens of millions of dollars toward that end.

With the finishing touches of construction still under way, CBS 2 tagged along with a group of elementary students in Cicero for a quick walk through their new $35 million school.

Valerie Lechuga is starting the first grade.

"I'm thinking like we're going to learn a lot, like get more homework," she said.

Teacher Nicole Larocco said she was "this excited to get started," as she threw her hands open in a wide gesture.

Larocco is one of the teachers preparing to welcome up to 600 students to the new Sherlock Elementary School. It's a high-concept, modern school featuring wide brightly colored classrooms, and large windows opening onto alternate learning spaces next door.

The school also includes interactive video walls for presentations, and desks that allow students to work in a variety of group settings.

Larocco expects that it will all have a tremendous impact on learning.

"We can create a culture where students can grow and learn and feel comfortable and even excited and enthusiastic about that," she said.

"Every single space in this building is a learning space," added Cicero schools Supt. Dr. Rodolfo Hernandez.

Hernandez said the environment at the school is based on new classroom designs that research suggests motivate students.

"I know it's going to make a difference," he said. "We started this on a smaller scale at some of our schools. The students love it. The teachers love it."

But all of this is happening in a district that's coping with its fair share of challenges. Examine the data, and you'll see that seven of its 16 schools are classified as underperforming.

A total of 76% of the district's 12,000 students come from low-income homes. The district spends $6,879 per student on instruction, and that's below the state average of $8,024 dollars.

But since creating more flexible spaces in 40 classrooms, the district has seen a 7.4 percent increase in its reading scores and a 10.4 percent rise in its math scores over the past three years.

Incoming first-grader Valerie is excited about the new experience – to the point of saying something that the rest of us might not have at her age.

"I like homework now," Valerie said.

Sherlock students will have daily labs in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. Achievement will be tracked a bit more than usual, to gauge how much the space around them is making a difference.

"Out there, it's like pretty colors – and blue, pink, every single color there is," Valerie said. "I like it a lot."

The ribbon-cutting for the new school is this coming Thursday. The first day of school is Aug. 28.

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