CALEDONIA — It’s obvious to students and staff at Olympia Brown Elementary School, 5915 Erie St., that the building they currently learn and teach in wasn’t designed for how they use it.
Originally built as a small college, the building’s corridors and staircases connect the building in ways that don’t seem to make sense, such as for second grader Kylie Kellogg, who explained the circuitous route her class takes twice a week from their homeroom to the school’s gym.
“We have to go up a staircase, and then we have to walk down a hall, and then we have to go up three more stairs, and then we have to walk all the way down a long hallway,” Kylie explained. “It just takes a really long time.”
“The layout of this building does not lend itself well to an elementary school setting,” said Olympia Brown’s Directing Principal Zachary Jacobsmeier. “There are a number of stairs, there are classrooms at all different levels, which gets very tricky for collaboration.”
That will change next September when students and staff start the next academic year in a completely new building, in a new location, constructed specifically to fit the needs of the school, according to district administrators.
Olympia Brown is one of three new, referendum-funded buildings the Racine Unified School District is constructing this year that The Journal Times is profiling as part of a three-part series.
In addition, the school will take on a new “science focus” by blending science concepts into reading and math curriculums and assigning more hands-on, student-driven projects related to science.
“Really what it means is that we are looking to infuse science into our school, into our day, into our environment as much as possible,” Jacobsmeier said. “We are looking to get students into hands-on projects that involve the sciences in many different disciplines, whether it be environmental science, physical science, chemistry, all of those types of areas.”
Out with the old, in with the new
Students and staff of Olympia Brown are expected to begin using the new building — located on a 20-acre lot at 5½ Mile and Novak roads, which is about a two-mile drive northeast of the current building — at the beginning of the new school year in September.
Constructing the new, more than 67,000-square-foot building is expected to cost nearly $15.1 million, with about $638,000 allocated for unexpected contingencies, according to district documents.
Those funds will come out of a taxes collected from a 15-year, $128 million referendum voters approved in Nov. 2014. The school has nearly 500 students this year, according to unofficial totals from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Although the current building is fairly large, administrators say it is difficult to use or repurpose for elementary school activities.
The district began using the building in November 1974, after a fire destroyed Crestview School, 7605 Lakeshore Drive, Caledonia. It served area residents.
Before that, the building was the Dominican Sisters’ College of Racine, which had gone into bankruptcy and closed. News reports at the time indicate that administrators only planned to use the building temporarily.
The building includes small offices for college professors and larger areas for college students to mingle, both of which have been difficult for the school to use as space in an elementary school setting.
Beyond having an updated facility tailored for use as an elementary school, the new building will spare the district the costs of about $17 million in deferred maintenance required on the current building, according to Dave Hazen, Unified’s chief of operations.
While it’s unclear what the district will do with the lakefront property, Hazen said the district will try to avoid spending more money on repairing and maintaining the building, possibly demolishing it, selling it or both.
“The idea behind replacing this building is we do not want to put the money into it to fix it up,” he said. “Since we’re not going to do that, we need to get rid of it.”
Hazen said it’s not yet clear what will happen to the REAL School, a charter school serving grades 6-12 that currently shares the building with Olympia Brown.
Meanwhile, Jacobsmeier said the transition to incorporating science more broadly into the overall curriculum will be designed to engage students in hands-on learning activities while giving them the softer social and creative thinking skills to excel throughout the rest of the education and eventually careers.
“The way that we are educating students has changed a lot, and we know that if we can have a focus such as science, have hands on opportunities for our kids, that it’s only going to be beneficial for them as they leave O. Brown and as they enter middle school, high school and then into the career/college aspect,” he said.
Faculty and administrators are still working out how this would work and what kind of activities this would include, but Jacobsmeier noted that the school is already using resources to incorporate more science, such as supplemental teaching material from “Engineering is Elementary,” educational activities developed by the Museum of Science in Boston.
However, Jacobsmeier noted that the school has started with small activities to get students thinking more regularly about science, such as offering a daily weather report in the morning announcements. He noted that the new building’s location will lend itself to regularly studying ecology and the environment in the grasslands and wetlands nearby.
Beyond offering a different approach for students to learn about science, Hazen noted that the district expects the science focus will help engage students in learning by giving the school a unique identity that the school community can be proud of.
“I think with all schools they need to have an identity,” he said. “So much of it is about student engagement, and if you have that theme, that identity, that will assist in student engagement.”