Cedar Rapids' school plan will start with a new Coolidge

Being most costly to maintain puts elementary at top of the list

The entrance to a classroom welcomes visitors and students to Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. Coolidge is the first school slated to be rebuilt in the Cedar Rapids school district’s new facilities plan. Planning would begin in January 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The entrance to a classroom welcomes visitors and students to Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. Coolidge is the first school slated to be rebuilt in the Cedar Rapids school district’s new facilities plan. Planning would begin in January 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A sweeping facilities plan approved Monday by the Cedar Rapids school board aims to deliver bold changes to every elementary school in the district — new schools at as many as 10 sites, renovations to three others and closures of eight.

The first school impacted under the plan will be Coolidge Elementary, a school of about 400 kindergartners through fifth-graders in southwest Cedar Rapids.

“That’s kind of exciting,” Coolidge Principal Greg O’Connell said Tuesday. “Kind of exciting and kind of scary.”

The first tier of Cedar Rapids schools' facilities plan

The plan calls for building a modern facility at the Coolidge site, then eventually tearing down the existing one.

The 50-year-old building is the most expensive one in the district to maintain, according to school documents, a distinction that pushed Coolidge into the plan’s first tier of projects.

Although some staff members said they consider Coolidge to be home, many said they are looking forward to working in a building with fewer ant outbreaks, level floors, consistent heat and more space for parking.

A new building would be much easier to maintain, said custodian Michael Denning.

“When I run the floor machine at night to clean the floors, you can see the unevenness of the floors just by where the water is standing,” Denning said. “Especially down by the (media center). There it’s like, if I step in the wrong area, am I going to sink?”

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The school’s media center and library has leaning bookshelves and carpet detached from walls, as the entire floor appears to be slowly caving in toward the center.

Media Secretary Annette Messina, a Coolidge Elementary graduate, had no qualms about seeing the building razed.

“It’s hot then it’s cold, the windows frost over, the bookshelves aren’t the best,” Messina said. “I’m ready for something that will be more functional for the kids.”

Updating the building would cost about $14 million, according to estimates from Shive-Hattery architects and presented to the board. The cost of a new school is expected to be about $20 million.

The district plans to build new facilities not only at Coolidge, but also at Arthur, Cleveland, Erskine, Harrison, Hoover, Jackson, Pierce, Wright and Johnson. Existing buildings will be razed once new ones are ready.

At Coolidge, planning a new school is set to begin in January 2019.

“What we would envision is going into Coolidge and talking with people that live there now, people with kids that may eventually go there, city folks, anybody who would like to engage and dream a little bit about what Coolidge will be,” Superintendent Brad Buck said at a forum last week sponsored by The Gazette.

Buck also described Coolidge as the school “immediately most in need” in the district.

“One of the things I think is thrilling is the opportunity that we have in the district to be first,” Principal O’Connell said. “To showcase a state-of-the-art facility, and I guess it’s kind of going to be a showcase then for what some of the other buildings may look like.”

Similar “community conversations” are scheduled to begin in January 2020 at Jackson Elementary, which is also in the plan’s first tier with Coolidge and Truman Elementary.

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In 2021, the community around Truman would discuss the closure of the school and how the site, at 441 W Post Road NW, might be repurposed.

Garfield, Grant Wood, Kenwood, Madison, Nixon, Taylor and Van Buren are also slated to close under the plan. Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson would be renovated.

The plan is expected to cost about $224 million and would primarily be funded by an extension of the SAVE tax, an existing penny sales tax, if legislators agree.

Although architectural plans for the new school at Coolidge have not yet been drawn — district officials have said designs will incorporate future community input — Coolidge educators are hopeful for bigger and more flexible teaching spaces.

“I have large children in a very small room,” said Mary Blocker, who teaches a combination class of fourth- and fifth-grade students. “Back when they built this building, it was rows with kids sitting and watching the teacher lecture. We just don’t teach that way anymore.”

She said she is constantly trying to work out how to store technology and other equipment in her classroom, where students’ desks are arranged in small groups.

“If I had my crystal ball,” O’Connell said, he would see a new school with dedicated spaces for students to work in small groups, instead of crowding in classrooms or convening in hallways.

There’s “some melancholy” about saying goodbye to the existing school, he said, but more excitement around new possibilities.

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“It’s been home to me,” said Candace Mitchell, an alternative kindergarten teacher at Coolidge for the past 17 years. But, “when it was built 50 years ago, it was very different than what our world today is. So to grow with that is great.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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