Brownell Middle School Principal David Laboranti speaks about the return to school as students and their families tour the new campus on Aug. 12. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

The beginning of the school year and return to in-person instruction on Aug. 18 will be a welcome change for most middle- and high-schoolers, who haven’t been in the same physical classrooms since the pre-pandemic times of March 2020.

It will be especially different for the eighth-graders of Brownell Middle School, who last stepped on campus as sixth-graders in early 2020, at a school that was simultaneously a construction zone and a time capsule.

One of the oldest schools in the Gilroy Unified School District is now the newest, as construction has wrapped up on a three-year $71 million renovation project that transformed the 1940s-era school into a technologically advanced campus.

Students, parents, staff and district officials celebrated the grand opening of Brownell Middle School with a ribbon cutting ceremony and self-guided tours on Aug. 12.

The campus is divided into two “pods” per grade. Each pod consists of a traditional classroom that can be integrated with an outdoor landscaped space, as well as a science lab. Classrooms feature desks that are reconfigurable, and teachers have the option to utilize a traditional whiteboard as well as a touch screen monitor at different areas of the room.

The school, powered by solar, is considered a “net zero energy campus,” meaning it produces enough energy to match its consumption. 

Brownell’s multipurpose building, which was constructed a little more than a decade ago, remains with a new kitchen attached to it. The library/media center can also be utilized for community groups.

For physical education, the school’s large field can hold multiple soccer games simultaneously, and more than 20 basketball hoops are sprinkled around the southern end of the campus.

The administration building, meanwhile, has about four times as much space as the previous incarnation.

Principal David Laboranti said being on campus during the construction phase was like “walking on the moon. There wasn’t a flat surface here.”

“Now we have this beautiful campus,” he said. “It has by far surpassed our expectations.”

Laboranti added that the last year-and-a-half has been “really intense,” with students forced to work at home and take classes via videoconferencing software, away from their peers physically.

“We’re really going to be proud to welcome our students back to campus and get them back into the swing of things,” he said.

Superintendent Deborah Flores said the project not only transformed the campus, but it helped beautify the surrounding neighborhoods. She pointed to the former dirt field that was highly visible and poorly maintained on the corner of First and Carmel streets.

“It was one of the first things that hit me as a new superintendent 14 years ago,” Flores said. “I drove down First Street and went, ‘Oh my God, somebody’s got to do something about that.’ We finally did.”

That field now houses most of the campus, as well as a parking lot and a bioswale for stormwater runoff.

Flores thanked Gilroy voters for supporting Measure E in 2016 as well as Measure P in 2008, which funded the Brownell modernization project as well as the upcoming South Valley Middle School renovation, which is expected to break ground in the coming weeks.

“Without their support, we would not have these projects,” Flores said.

Return to the classroom

Elementary students returned to the classroom in April, but Aug. 18 will mark the first time all Gilroy students are allowed to return since campuses shut down in March 2020.

Per California Department of Public Health guidelines, everyone is required to wear masks indoors in school settings, regardless of their vaccination status. Updated guidelines also do away with the physical distancing requirements in classrooms.

On Aug. 11, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all staff in California schools must be fully vaccinated or be tested for Covid-19 at least once a week.

In a letter to parents, Flores said more than 95 percent of GUSD staff have been vaccinated as of Aug. 6.

The district is also offering the Virtual Learning Academy for students who prefer to work from home. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade can access courses at any time from an internet-connected device, working at their own pace in curriculum such as math, science and English. They also work with GUSD teachers, who offer support through office hours and other appointments to keep students on track.

GUSD officials will host a virtual back-to-school information session on Aug. 16 at 6:30pm. For information, visit

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Erik Chalhoub joined Weeklys as an editor in 2019. Prior to his current position, Chalhoub worked at The Pajaronian in Watsonville for seven years, serving as managing editor from 2014-2019.


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