When Isaac School District #5 surveyed its educators, parents, and community about facility upgrades, Dr. Lily Mesa-Lema saw a unique opportunity to enhance student learning—and with it, a massive logistical challenge that led to an unexpected partnership.
A Second Job
As Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the Phoenix-based district, Lily was drawn into a whole new set of responsibilities when the district had to decide how to use its ESSER funding.
“Building structures as well as furniture came up, and then the idea of refurnishing old classrooms to support teaching and learning. I said, well, teachers and students and families better have a voice. So all of a sudden, I ended up managing this project.”
The project was not in her job description. It also was not small—the purchase of 10 schools’ worth of entirely reimagined K–5 classrooms.
“It has been an interesting experience for me,” she understates. “Yes, my title is Curriculum and Instruction, but I do know that the space and the furniture play a big role in learning. That’s why I wanted to be a big part of the project.”
A Chance Meeting
“We had the vision. It was now a matter of, ‘How do we stagger it to be manageable and work through all the different deadlines? How do we ensure that the products are going to be available and we’ll be able to install during fall break, winter break, and summer school so we don’t interrupt learning?’”
The search for answers didn’t start with School Specialty. “We’d started working with a different company, an architectural company. One of our specialists somehow was tasked with getting furniture for sensory rooms, and he just heard from someone, ‘Hey, you might find some stuff for a sensory room from this company.’ And he enjoyed the experience that Kelli gave him. So when I was frustrated with this other company, he said, ‘Hey, have you worked with School Specialty? Here’s the catalog. Check to see what they have, and here’s Kelli’s contact information.’”
School Specialty makes sure what you’re getting fits your goals—for student learning, design of the space, and functionality.Dr. Lily Mesa-Lema
A Dedicated Team
In Strategic Account Representative Kelli Roy, Lily found more than she bargained for: a professional who not only shared her goal but brought in a whole crew of experts to reach it.
“I always work with the same core team. It’s not a revolving door. Kelli, Kris (Learning Environment Specialist Kris Anderson) Mandy (Senior Interior Designer Mandy Barbieri), and to an extent Sue Ann (National Education Strategist Dr. Sue Ann Highland) with professional development. You’re not meeting with different people every time and re-explaining why you’re doing this or why you’re changing the design. That’s been really essential because this isn’t part of my day-to-day work. I didn’t have to re-communicate over and over with different people, which I’ve had to do with other companies.”
A Shared Vision
“One of the great things in working with School Specialty is that it has not felt like a sales pitch. They really are connected to our vision, our goals. For one, we are doing big work related to equity. I shared with the School Specialty team that the committee I’m leading wanted furniture that not only meets the needs of the learners, but is also equitable across all grade levels. We wanted our kindergarteners to have that same experience with classroom spaces, the same access across the district. I shared that with Sue Ann. I love Sue Ann. Right away she went, ‘Oh, we could do professional development related to this, that, and the other.’
“What’s made this experience unique is, it has never been just about the products. It’s always been in a context, like when we talk about bringing in tables versus individual student desks, or about the color. Kris goes to a site and she says, ‘Well, your color scheme is this, so this might be a better choice for you,’ and I appreciate that. That it’s not just about, ‘Oh, let me sell you these products.’ It’s ‘Let me make sure that what you’re getting fits your needs.’”
A Welcome Surprise
School Specialty had met the project’s every need, from design support to instructional materials to art supplies. Once the deal was sealed, Lily knew what level of service to expect. What she got was something remarkably better.
“I deal with a lot of vendors, for curriculum, materials, all these things. Usually, good service only goes to the person paying the bill. But during the summer install—a massive project, 10 schools, installing furniture in every single classroom K–5—I am not kidding, principals were coming up to me and speaking about the good service and customer support they’d received. Not just from Kelli and Kris, who were there overseeing, but from the individuals who were putting the furniture together during a very hot Phoenix summer. It was a really neat thing to see.”
The Voice of Experience
Lily offers hard-earned advice to other educators who face challenges like hers.
“You want a supplier who will put your goals at the center of their services, not one with their profits driving the conversation. School Specialty makes sure what you’re getting fits your goals—for student learning, design of the space, and functionality.
“Yes, furniture and having those classrooms fully set up and furnished is important. But at the end of the day, walking into those classrooms and seeing the beautiful spaces and knowing it has a huge impact on the modality they are engaging with for learning—that’s my driver. Ensuring that students are learning.”