116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Harrison Elementary School Principal Trista Manternach is excited her school is one of the next buildings in the Cedar Rapids district to be modernized.
As Manternach walks through the building where she has been principal for six years, she points to exposed radiators in classrooms and the single-court gym that pose a burn risk.
At Harrison Elementary, students work at desks placed in the hallway when they need to work one-on-one with a teacher or in a small group. With students passing through the hallways to go to recess, special classes and lunch, it is often a distraction for students trying to learn, Manternach said.
The building also is not available for the community to use it after school hours because there are no restrooms available to the public, Manternach said.
These concerns will all be addressed when Harrison Elementary is either renovated or moved to a new building — the fourth elementary school to be constructed in the Cedar Rapids Community School District in about five years.
A facilities plan approved by the Cedar Rapids school board earlier this year will combine Harrison and Madison elementary school attendance zones by fall 2025. District officials are considering two options on how to do that: Renovate the existing Harrison building at 1310 11th St. NW, or build a new building on the grounds of Madison Elementary, 1341 Woodside Dr. NW.
West Willow Elementary School, 6225 First Ave. SW, was the first new school building to be built in the district in nearly 20 years. It opened to students for the 2021-22 school year.
The second new school — Maple Grove Elementary, 1300 38th St. NW — will open this fall to replace Jackson Elementary School.
The district’s third new elementary school is being planned at Arthur Elementary on its “annex,” the land across the street from the school at 2630 B Ave. NE. It is to open by fall 2024. Both the old Arthur and Garfield Elementary, 1201 Maplewood Dr. NE, will be closed and the attendance zones combined.
Different buildings, similar designs
While the schools won’t all be built exactly the same, they will have similar qualities. Those include “neighborhoods” — or pods — of classrooms broken up by grade levels and made up of classrooms and a common area where students can work collaboratively.
West Willow Principal Greg O’Connell said the neighborhoods concept helps keep teachers from feeling isolated. With three or four teachers on a team, they can share ideas, share students and look at data together to see what’s working well.
While the district has been fostering professional learning communities for over a decade, the neighborhoods will help further those relationships. The neighborhoods are created with secure entrances that can be closed off in an emergency. Within the neighborhoods are several classrooms with large windows that let in natural sunlight and look in to a common area, giving teachers a line of sight to their students working outside a classroom.
Safer drop-off and pickup
Dropping off and picking up students at school will be made safer with the new school designs. At many historic school buildings, there is only one area for school buses and families to pick up their children in a vehicle and for students to enter and exit if they walk to and from school.
“We want to separate that out as much as possible,” said Vicki Hyland, an accredited learning environment planner with OPN Architects. “While we worry about intruders, honestly kids more frequently are impacted by circulation problems. When you have a kid on a bike and they are not directed to an entrance separate from the parent and bus drop off, it can create issues.”
Each new elementary school will serve 500 to 600 students. The district’s elementary schools now vary in size from 200 to 500 students, creating an inequitable distribution of resources.
The elementary school construction projects are funded by a statewide 1 percent sales tax called SAVE — Secure an Advanced Vision for Education — that’s allocated based on enrollment.
‘New era of learning’
Nick Lang, a fourth-grade teacher at West Willow Elementary, said the new building is helping usher in a “new era of learning.”
Lang has begun including filmmaking to help students learn. Recently, they created a short film about math to help them learn place value. In the neighborhood’s common area, students work independently and in collaboration with others where they can be monitored but don’t have the distraction of working in a hallway.
“It allows them to work through their thoughts and come up with a solution,” Lang said. “In the classroom they’re more silent and less open to try new things because there are more eyes on them.”
Natural light floods in to classrooms, improving the mindset of Lang and his students, he said. Some days, they don’t even turn on the classroom lights because the sunlight alone is enough.
No more merging grade levels
A larger building that serves more students will alleviate the need to combine grades of students. For the 2022-23 school year, there will be three sections of combined fourth and fifth-grade students at Arthur Elementary because there are not enough students to make up three sections of each grade individually, Principal Jennifer Nurre said.
There also is not enough space in the current Arthur Elementary School for all the students it serves. In the special education room, shower curtains divide the space into several separate classrooms. Kindergarten students in the annex across the street from the main Arthur Elementary building have to cross the street several times a day to get to lunch and special classes.
Less maintenance, more cleaning
Jon Galbraith, Cedar Rapids schools’ building and grounds manager, said merging elementary schools will mean both fewer buildings to maintain and also buildings that are easier to care for because they don’t have the problems of a 50- to 100-year-old structure. Building and grounds staff will be able to spend more of that time keeping the buildings clean, Galbraith said.
Newer buildings also will be more energy efficient with double-pane windows and better insulation, Galbraith said. While there is conversation about solar panels, it is not yet feasible for the district, Galbraith said. The life expectancy of solar panels is 25 years, but it would cost the district 46 years to pay it back.
Some residents have voiced concern at school board meetings about whether new construction will be the same quality as historic buildings, but Galbraith said that concern is “not legitimate.” The new buildings will stand the test of time just as well as the historic buildings did, he said.
Hyland, one of only three accredited learning environment planners in Iowa who has worked on many of the school building projects for Eastern Iowa districts, said schools built with the neighborhood design create opportunities for more authentic, project-based learning.
“Some of our older schools in Cedar Rapids were built at a time when it was a narrow corridor and individual classrooms off of that,” Hyland said. Teachers and students were “very cut off from each other,” she said.
The neighborhoods open up the opportunity for students to work together across classrooms. Sunlight and colorful walls such as West Willow’s hallways painted with stripes of yellow, blue and green are more inviting than traditional buildings, Hyland said.
Before beginning construction on any elementary buildings, architects, district officials, principals and teachers toured schools across Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, Hyland said.
When West Willow was just a concept and the students were attending the former Coolidge Elementary School, which West Willow replaced, the architect spoke with staff at Coolidge Elementary about their hopes and dreams, O’Connell said.
School buildings are a “springboard for learning,” Hyland said. “It’s designing spaces suitable to make sure kids feel safe and secure in an environment where they are able to learn in different ways.”
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