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Local architect transforms La Jolla public schools

By Katie Reynolds

Make your way through La Jolla public schools, and you will see Steve Pomerenke’s mark.

At the end of last year, Pomerenke completed a mural at Muirlands Middle School.

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While Pomerenke came up with various designs for the mural, the school ended up choosing an ocean scene. “The concept was to show all these different fish, all this different sea life exist in one place together,” Pomerenke said. “They are all different, some are by themselves, some form groups, some are in pairs, but they all coexist, and its okay, for me it’s like a mirror for the kids, this is you, you are one of these, but you all fit together.”

Before his daughter started at Muirlands Middle School, Pomerenke approached the principal, Chris Hargrove, with a couple of ideas for beautifying the school. The principal connected him with parents and gave him free reign, Pomerenke said.

Although Pomerenke volunteered his time, the materials for the project were funded by David and Christina Andrews, parents of students at Muirlands. Shortly after, parent Dorie Gayner started a Mural Club. Once a week for about three months, students and parents would meet after school and paint the mural. Aside from Gayner, other parents who spent time on the project included Jane Wheeler, Marlana Poulin and Merja Tarakjian.

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The image was drawn by Pomerenke, and projected onto 4-by-8 panels of steel, which the kids and parents painted. Pomerenke stressed the fact it was important to him that the kids and parents collaborated on the effort, and that it was privately funded. “I could have done it in three weeks, but it was more important for the kids to be involved,” Pomerenke said. “The more you get the kids to imprint themselves on the school, the more they take authorship.”

The mural is just the beginning of his master plan for the school. He has since painted the handicap ramp with waves. A lot of the retaining poles have been painted to match the water color in the mural, and Pomerenke plans to have the rest of them painted as well. “You put a little drop of red, and all of a sudden it’s magic.” Pomerenke said. “You don’t even notice those gray poles, and the minute you put color on them, they come alive.”

Other future plans include painting golden nautilus patterns up the entryway, redoing the Muirlands sign, creating an amphitheater, an art walk, a music garden, a history garden, a science and math garden, outdoor learning labs, a movement patio and a wave wall. Most of these projects incorporate a lot of painting, some planting and sculpture. A few years ago, Pomerenke transformed La Jolla Elementary School in another project that involved students, teachers and parents.

“The library was built, the sad part was there was not money for the garden out there. Kids walked through this muddy pit. . . I came up with the idea for 10 gardens to communicate language and speech,” Pomerenke said. These included a language garden, word play garden and verb garden. Of the verb garden, Pomerenke said, “Kids walk through and everything about it is action, the spirals, the red, within the spiral are action words.”

He also created colored language blocks that can be used as chairs. On each one, there is a different part of speech. If students take a word from each brightly colored block, they can form a sentence.

An outdoor reading garden is surrounded with lavender, intended to jog the kids’ memories as they brush up against it. Poetry poles allow kids to put up their poetry and prose, a life-size version of the book “The Wizard of Oz” lines the entrance of the garden, and an outdoor classroom and stage allow the kids to enjoy La Jolla weather.

The La Jolla Elementary project was also funded by the parents. In 2006, it won the San Diego Home and Garden “Garden of the Year” award.

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Although his son Christopher has one more year at Muirlands Middle School, Pomerenke’s daughter is entering La Jolla High School in the fall.

David Andrews has already approached him, saying he will fund a project for La Jolla High School, Pomerenke said. Pomerenke enthusiastically said he, “thinks of schools as blank canvases.”

Pomerenke, who got his undergraduate degree in landscape architecture and his masters in architecture, says he enjoys working with a team on big corporate projects. He has lived in La Jolla for the last 10 years, and says it’s a “great little community, I really feel like it’s a village, I’m on the town council, and people are involved, it’s a great place to grow up as a family.”