If you’ve been to Coolidge Elementary School on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids in the past few months, you may have noticed some construction work.
As part of phase one of the future-ready Facilities Master Plan, a new elementary school is being built at the Coolidge site with plans to open in time for the 2021-22 school year. Additionally, ground will be broken for a new elementary school at the Jackson Elementary School site in Spring 2021.
“This is a monumental moment for our district,” says Superintendent Noreen Bush. “As the first new school to be opened in the district in 19 years with another soon after, these new buildings will serve students for decades to come.”
To arrive at this moment, it has taken a colossal effort from all involved: district staff, board members, community members, the City of Cedar Rapids, and contractors.
Coming together on design
Before groundbreaking could occur, the design needed to be created and approved. This extensive process involved many drafts—in fact, hundreds of drafts.
As a first step, a diverse group of staff, parents, and administrators toured new elementary schools in the region—also known as benchmarking trips—to see best practices and cutting-edge design firsthand. These visits opened the group’s eyes to see how other schools are tackling typical matters, such as maximizing natural light, eliminating water run-off issues, and blending building design with the existing neighborhood.
Besides gaining insight into large, overarching issues, some small-scale details stood out to the group. One elementary school that was toured had a child-sized door at the front entrance. The child-specific experience of walking through a door built just for them made sense, and will be incorporated to the new elementary school at Coolidge.
Next, community members were invited to visioning sessions and focus groups where input could be shared. A steering committee was also formed with district staff and OPN Architects to guide the collected feedback through an extensive design revision process, and ensure the project remained on budget.
Design priorities were boiled down to collaboration, flexibility, natural light, open spaces, connection to nature, and innovation.
“The resulting designs used the information gathered to incorporate collaboration zones, embedded technology, and flexible environments,” explains Vicki Hyland, associate at OPN Architects. “[The designs] will provide for student-centered learning environments.”
The design process has also been completed for the new elementary school at Jackson.
“What an opportunity exists here,” says Nick Duffy, principal at Jackson. “We get to reimagine what school can be.”
A groundbreaking ceremony was planned in March 2020; however, the coronavirus scuttled those plans. Construction moved forward as scheduled anyway. The Aug. 10, 2020, derecho storm caused a small amount of damage to the construction; however, the storm only caused a delay of a month.
“We are so excited to see the school going up and changing daily,” says Greg O’Connell, principal at Coolidge Elementary School. “[Garling Construction is] working very hard to keep the building on track for opening next school year.”
The new building is configured so Coolidge can stay fully functional. This layout was made possible by collaborating with the City of Cedar Rapids, which is allowing the district to use adjoining park land.
As construction moves along, the student-centered design is being realized, especially the grade-level pods.
“This learning space will allow for some collaborative work amongst the grade level for students and staff,” explains O’Connell. “Within the pod they will have their own bathrooms and locker area—there will be less time wasted by going to the hall and being away from their room.”
Similar student-focused design benefits are planned for the new building at Jackson.
“We’ve looked to brain research and the positive impact of natural light and biophilic design—connecting the indoors to the natural environment,” explains Duffy. “The final result when you walk through the main corridor of the new building will be quite stunning as well as a great amount of natural light in classrooms and common spaces.”
Moving closer to completion
As the building nears completion, several other components will take shape, such as the new building’s name. That process is underway, and building leaders are keeping students at the center of that process.
“We went to all classrooms remotely and provided a naming lesson about what is important about a name,” explains O’Connell. “We explained how we would want something strong, respectful, and something that stands the test of time.”
Students and staff submitted their ideas, and they will vote on the selections this winter.
Additionally, ground will soon be broken for the new elementary school at Jackson. “As soon as the ground thaws and construction can begin, it will,” says Duffy.
Over time, the district anticipates seeing a financial benefit from the new buildings, which are funded by Iowa’s Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) funding. “These buildings will be financially-efficient over time,” explains Dave Nicholson, district executive director of business services. “The increased efficiency will be realized in many ways, including through saved utilities and staff costs.”
Once the new building at the Jackson site opens, Truman Elementary School will be repurposed. Please be looking forward to an upcoming story on Truman Elementary School and their important role in the Facilities Plan.
One thing is certain, these new buildings are a spark of excitement for the district and families, and the larger Cedar Rapids community.
“The new buildings, we hope, will bring new life to the area,” says O’Connell.
“This is such an exciting project,” adds Duffy. “[It’s] a rare opportunity to reimagine not only learning spaces but dream about the new learning communities that will emerge.”