Seventh grade students in a humanities class were given an atlas, nothing more, and instructed to work in pairs to answer the question “Should differences be minimized or welcomed?” Upstairs, workers laid the foundation for hydronic heating, a green innovation that uses water to conduct heat under flooring.

By next year, the stately yellow building at 250 Valencia St., the oldest surviving Levi Strauss denim factory, will be completed as the home of the San Francisco Friends School. It’s a pairing between religion and commerce that is unexpected yet fitting.

Just as Levi Strauss began as a company that produced simple, durable clothes for the working man, the most important Quaker value is simplicity and the last is environmental stewardship.

A gallery on the ground floor showcases memorabilia from the building's past.

A gallery on the ground floor showcases memorabilia from the building's past.

“We wanted the building to be able to continue its former life,” said Andrew Salverda, the 7th grade teacher and head of the middle school.

The kindergarten through 7th grade independent school, the only Quaker school in the Bay Area, moved to the Mission District in the fall of 2008 after outgrowing its former location in the Castro.

Now, the 365 students and teaching staff of about 50 call the factory home.  Levi’s wanted to “look for the correct recipient” that would preserve its features, according to Nathan Dunn, the Plant Construction Company project manager who oversaw general contracting for the renovation.

The Quaker school turned out to be just that.

They wanted to “do the right thing for the building and community environmentally,” noted Kami Kinkaid of Pfau Long Architecture, the company that designed the rehabilitation that has won several awards including a 2009 American Institute of Architects Citation Award for Energy + Sustainability, and a spot on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Top Ten Greenest Buildings list for the city.

Large windows above every room and hanging lamps give the building a light and open feel.

Large windows above every room and hanging lamps give the building a light and open feel.

Almost 50 percent of the materials used in the renovation were previously part of the building. For example, the steps of the main stairwell were made from the wooden beams of the ground floor. The reception desk is a Levi’s prototype retail desk that was found in the basement.

Instead of uprooting the original maple floors, the crew just applied one coat of sealer and then wax to preserve the nicks and scratches. That feature is one of Dunn’s favorite aspects of the school because the more than 100 years of wear and tear from machines rolling around in the building give it character and speak of its past life. There is also a 10,000 square foot playground in front of the building that serves the same purpose as it did years ago when it was a recreational area for the children of Levi workers.

Photos of the founding kindergarten class line a post by the main stairwell, which is made from repurposed beams.

Photos of the founding kindergarten class line a post by the main stairwell, which is made from repurposed beams.

The light that floods the building’s open layout also echoes the idea of inner light the staff is trying to cultivate in the students. Head of School Catherine Hunter noted that one of the school’s goals is to engage the students through process-oriented, collaborative learning. This is so that each child learns how powerful they can be and how to make their own voice heard while being a team player.

Across the hall from the humanities discussion, a math class had the students working in groups to graph the action of runners in a word problem, write up sports commentary on the race, and create a poster to show the rest of the class.

Hunter also stressed that part of the school’s job is to be a “lens on social justice.” Through age-appropriate activities and explanations, the students grow to understand complex issues such as homelessness, which the teachers try not to oversimplify.

Salverda added that Quaker schools are becoming more popular and highly regarded. President Barack Obama’s daughters are attending the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

The school's arts department invites community members to adorn the fence around the playground with their hopes and dreams.

The school's arts department invites community members to adorn the fence around the playground with their hopes and dreams.

As far as independent schools go, San Francisco Friends is one of the most diverse, according to Shawn Brokemond, a kindergarten teacher who has been with the school for many years. 37 percent of the population is made up of students of color and 26 percent live in the 94110 (which covers the Mission and Bernal Heights) and 94114 (which covers the Castro) zip codes combined.

Salverda thinks that the Mission will be a “great neighborhood to expand upon” their diversity. Hunter affirmed that the school is “thoroughly in and of the neighborhood.”

Each grade takes part in some sort of community project every year, explained Salverda. The 5th graders have taken field trips to explore local water systems, and the 6th grade is learning about local gardens and green spaces. This year, Salverda looks forward to the 7th grade mapping the neighborhood as part of the urban studies element of humanities they are taught.

7th graders delegating tasks in a math assignment.

7th graders delegating tasks for a math assignment.

Seventh-grader Nathan Wertheimer, who has been at the school since kindergarten, was excited to talk about part of the project the students have already done: a scavenger hunt based in the neighborhood in which they could take pictures of things they liked and present to their classmates. Soon, the students will get to shadow workers in different businesses in the area. “It’s fun to be doing things and not just reading about them,” he said.

Salverda hopes this project will help the students “identify problems in the neighborhood” and see first-hand what different organizations deal with on a daily basis. Wertheimer is just glad they get to spend so much time away from the classroom.