by Mike Knaak
That’s a word commonly heard from students and teachers when they talk about the new Sartell High School.
The $89.5 million high school at 3101 Pinecone opens on Sept. 3.
When students start classes, they’ll experience the results of four years of planning and design that will offer a drastically different educational experience.
A vision for the school started before the district asked voters to approve a building bond and detailed planning started within weeks of voter approval in May 2016.
“It’s been a many-year journey for us,” said Kay Nelson, assistant superintendent, during a tour for Chamber of Commerce members last week.
The new building offers bright, open common spaces, classrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows instead of solid walls and a variety of learning spaces for individual, small-group and large-group work as well as spaces for creating digital media projects.
The design flowed from students and teachers talking about how they use school space.
Senior Sarah Klimpel said planning started when she was a freshman.
“I’m excited to see it all come together,” Klimpel said. “I’m excited to learn in such a cool space.”
Commons at the center
All school pursuits – classes, lunch, activities, performing – center around the Commons, a two-story space with bright colors, tables, chairs and couches lit from second-floor windows.
“It’s a big space where everyone can be,” Klmpel said.
Students weighed in on the furniture selection.
“We wanted something more comfortable than the old high school but not go too far so you fall asleep while doing homework,” said senior Janagan Ramanathan.
From the Commons, students turn right to enter the Performing Arts wing, with an 800-seat theater and music classrooms.
Straight ahead, roll back the sliding walls and there are five food-service lines.
Beyond food service, another hall leads to a gymnasium, auxiliary gym, a pool, locker rooms and Fitness Center.
Look left, and the building’s basic design features stand out. Learning is out in the open.
Above, eight science labs overlook the Commons. On the main floor, windows open to the technical education and arts classrooms.
“If you stand in the Commons, you can see every content area,” Principal Brenda Steve said.
“Tech. ed. used to be dark, dirty and dingy.”
“I like how modern it is and the simple architectural style,” said sophomore Isabella Rodriquez. “After we toured the new building I went back to the old high school. It’s so ugly now, nothing matches.”
Beyond the Commons, three wings – Learning Neighborhoods – house a variety of learning areas.
The two-story Learning Neighborhoods are named Watab, Pine and Meadow – a nod to Sartell’s history and geography. Each houses a variety of learning areas including large-group rooms, informal gathering spaces, small-group rooms and space for individual work.
The Learning Neighborhoods meet the design goals of visible, flexible and adaptable learning spaces.
Classrooms feature movable furniture, moveable walls and floor-to-ceiling windows along the halls. Smaller rooms offer space for group projects. In the center, there are work tables and seating for individual or small-group work.
Teachers in each Learning Neighborhood share a workroom instead of a permanent room assignment. Teachers from a variety of disciplines work side by side to foster interdepartmental collaboration.
“We went through the process of neighborhoods and learning studios. It was an evolution. What did we need? What did it look like?” said social studies teacher Jen Traver. “We have to change our approach intellectually (about) what a classroom is.”
The Learning Neighborhoods solve the most often mentioned deficiency of the old building…a place for small-group work. At the old building, teachers would send students to work in the already crowded hallways. For teachers, the students were out of sight and for the students, concentrating on a project or, for example making a project video, was just about impossible.
Along the corridor connecting the Learning Neighborhoods, there are labs for video and audio projection as well as a room dedicated to high-tech work such as web design and computer coding.
If you’re looking for the school library or media center, you won’t find it. During the planning process, teachers and students saw a different need for “media” space. That vision included the digital creation labs and moving books from a central library to spaces around the building.
There are little libraries in the common spaces as well as more course-specific bookshelves in the Learning Neighborhoods.
Teachers and district leaders wanted the new building to help students prepare for jobs and two-year post-secondary paths as well as attending a four-year college. Spaces for welding and fabrication are next to visual arts rooms for pottery and drawing. Over in the Performing Arts wing behind the theater stage, a giant door opens to a space that doubles as a wood shop by day and a scene shop for plays after school. A separate building houses an automotive shop.
An increasingly popular pursuit – cooking – led to the building of a culinary lab. Just off the Commons, windows reveal a gleaming, stainless steel professional-grade kitchen.
At the old building, lockers lined the halls, contributing to congestion. In the new building, lockers are centrally located in the Learning Neighborhoods. Ninth-graders have their own locker area.
A main gym that seats 2,000 people for games anchors the activities corridor. Two giant video screens serve as scoreboards, replacing the old blinking lights. Next door in the auxiliary gym, volleyball nets drop from the ceiling and there’s spectator seating on one wall.
Across the hall, a swimming pool with expanded deck space for teams and 400 seats for spectators plus standing room surrounds an eight-lane pool. Frosted windows on the south wall flood the room with natural light.
Down the hall, another facility solves another frequently mentioned need: replace the smelly, overcrowded weight room. The new Fitness Center has more space and additional cardio and weight machines.
“The weight room is very nice,” said junior football team member Blake Hartwig. “It’s a lot bigger with more machines for everybody.”
Next door, there’s a classroom that can be used for the school’s partnership with St. Cloud Orthopedics where students team up with medical professionals and observe patient treatments.
60 acres of green space
Outside, there are fields for soccer, lacrosse, softball and baseball games as well as multiple practice fields and tennis courts on more than 60 acres of green space. A building for ticket sales, concessions and restrooms sits between the soccer and baseball fields.
Stepping out of the warm, humid pool, visitors notice a frequently-mentioned but invisible need: fully functioning air conditioning in the entire building.
In the Performing Arts wing, a theater with its balcony seats 800, double the capacity of the old school. By the use of lighting, the seating areas can be sectioned off for performances that attract smaller audiences.
“Music was part of so many different (planning) meetings, technology, acoustics, how big do the doors need to be?” said choir teacher Brandon Nordhues. “I’m really excited about space for the ensembles. I’m excited about being able to take the high caliber of music we already do to see what is possible in the new space.”
Separate rehearsal rooms for choir, band and orchestra and small practice rooms make up the Sabre Sound area. The rooms’ most important feature can’t be seen, but the rooms are built so multiple groups can rehearse at once without sound bleeding from an adjacent room.
“Lights, windows, space. Kids are going to see everything is new and better,” Nordhues said.
An expanded special-education area adds space but is also a more specialized facility. There’s a simulated apartment where students can learn life skills such as cooking and making a bed. Teachers and students can leave the building through a separate door if it’s time to go out for a walk.
Locations and functions of school offices have been changed. The main office is to the right of the main entrance. During school hours, outer doors are locked and visitors enter a door to the main office and then pass through another door to enter the school. Office staff can control who enters the building as well as locking down or locking out the entire building.
The activities office is next door off the Commons.
There’s a big change for the counseling office. Instead of being part of the administration offices, counseling has a separate entrance and offices on the other side of the Commons.
Visitors to the old high school are familiar with the crowded, confusing parking lot and cars lining neighboring streets.
At the new site, three parking lots will provide plenty of parking. For the coming school year, 485 students have applied for permits. Spaces won’t be assigned and spots will be available on a first-come, first-served basis for students and staff.
On the typical first day of school, only the ninth-graders and a handful of new teachers would be exploring a new space. This year everyone – students, teachers and administrators – will be learning their way around.
“Working with student planning groups you forget sometimes kids worry about knowing where they are going,” Traver said. “We’re all new…students and teachers.”
Juniors and seniors will guide ninth-graders and other students new to the district during orientation on Sept. 3. Orientation also includes a range of topics from football cheers to lunchroom etiquette.
The new school, at 297,000-square feet, isn’t massively larger than the old building’s 250,583 square feet. But the open, bright design may create the illusion of a much bigger space.
After taking a tour for student guides last week, Rodriquez’s reaction – “It’s so big.”
Author: Heidi L. Everett
Heidi joined The Newsleaders Oct. 30, 2020 after being a fan of the St. Joseph edition for 15 years. When she is not sharing local news and stories, she is a professor of strategic communications at St. Cloud State University.