Initial floor plans and a few detailed renderings of the new Owatonna High School were presented at Monday night’s School Board work session, with two overarching themes: visible learning and flexible spaces.
Consultants from Wold Architects and Engineers shared the drawings with School Board members following months of meeting with a 26-person facility planning team made up of educators, students and community members as well as additional athletics and performing arts focus groups. A $104 million building bond referendum for the new facility was approved by voters last fall.
The focal point of the three-story design is a commons area directly inside of the main entrance. There will also be a secondary activities entrance on the east side of the building, opening onto two adjacent gymnasiums and the auditorium. This wing will likely be able to be separated from the rest of the building by a set of secure doors.
The commons space is intended to double as a cafeteria and stretches the height of the entire building and has an open atrium that looks a number of classrooms and Student Services.
“When you’re in that space, you’re really going to feel like you see a ton of what’s going on in the school and the activity that’s going on in the classrooms,” said Paul Aplikowski, a partner at Wold, during the meeting.
Architect Sal Bagley added that, at this stage, the planning team has put everything into place in terms of overall layout and relationships. Now, Wold is halfway through a series of meetings with specific user groups, focused on the smaller details unique to each subject area. Bob Olson, facilities director for the district, added that there are also user groups made up of businesses who have donated materials or helped purchase specific things for the new facility. Discussions with those stakeholders will center on how the materials are being used.
At the moment, Olson added that a classroom may still change position and details like where doors are placed and which way they open are still being worked out. However, he said the overall shell of the building and the basic floor plan of where things are in relation to each other should stay pretty much the same.
“Once you start getting the designs to where we’re at right now, it’s hard to make a ton of changes because the engineering process has to start coming in,” he added. “Still, we have to be crystal clear that these plans are a rough draft and they can change by the hour. Every room may not be exactly where we say it is right now.”
At the work session, the floor plan and renderings were only matters of discussion for the board. No formal action will be required until later this fall, when Superintendent Jeff Elstad said finalized plans and an environmental assessment worksheet will be up for board approval.
Currently, plans are to put the project out to bid this winter.
Inspired by the city
In addition to feedback and work with the community group, Aplikowksi added that Wold used certain elements of the city for inspiration in different areas of the building. In one slide shared with the board Monday night, he presented a map of Owatonna divided into different districts, each meant to help inspire one of the areas in the building.
Downtown and the river influenced the commons, which will reach the height of the building and serve as a central gathering space, complete with a wide “learning steps” staircase meant to double as an informal lecture area.
Residential neighborhoods helped inspire the classroom areas. Dubbed “learning communities” in the new design, these take up all three stories on the western edge of the building, grouped by subject area. For each concentration, there are typically a few different classrooms with varying degrees of openness — including the ability to open onto each other or onto a common space.
On all three floors, they are also grouped in an almost identical floor plan, which Aplikowski said is meant to replicate a cul-de-sac, classrooms surrounding a C-shaped hallway that hugs the western edge of the commons.
Still working on site
At the meeting, Bagley added that the design of the building precedes the design of the site, which is currently in a more preliminary stage. Still, Wold was able to provide an initial layout for how the entire 88-acre campus might look. The building itself and two parking lots are envisioned at the far north end, with athletic facilities adjacent and practice fields filling much of the southern and eastern part of the property.
“We really have to help sight the building on the site before any grading can be done, and we also have to wait for reports on wetland delineations and soil bearings,” she added.
Another step in the planning process will be the annexation of the majority of the site from the county into the city of Owatonna.
“The only part of that land that is part of the city is the homestead where the current landowner lives. The old farmhouse is part of the county,” said Olson.
After the presentation by Wold, school board members responded positively and commented on the number of elevators and the availability of spaces to the community. Board member Nikki Gieseke asked if the two planned elevators would be sufficient to serve students. Currently, there is one planned to go in the heart of the learning communities wing, and another in the center that can serve classrooms, as well as the second level of the auditorium and an elevated walking track — slated to circle around the two planned, adjacent gymnasiums.
“The elevators will service all floors simultaneously, a student won’t have to transition from one elevator to another to access different parts of the building — that’s an increased feature for this high school,” Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath said at the meeting.
Board member Lori Weisenburger favored the new walking track and similar spaces which may be available for community use. Of the ability to get more members of the public in the building, Elstad said it’s definitely one of the benefits of the design, but there will need to be more discussion on the best way to do so while keeping students safe.
“We can’t allow them to have full access to the entire school, but we can ensure that we have a nice combination,” said Olson, adding that there are certain doorways that can be shut to cordon off different parts of the facility. “When we went to Stillwater High School, the public could come in and use the walking track until 7:30 a.m., and then they could come back in after 4 p.m.”
As Wold continues to work with user groups and hammer out the details, Elstad said he also wanted to thank the staff, students and community members who worked to get the design to its current stage.
“The planning group is really a group of over 100 people that represents some of our internal stakeholders and our community in every one of the groups that’s doing the planning,” he added. “They’ve put in a lot of time and energy to go from a blank slate to what we believe will be a fantastic opportunity for our students.”
For most seniors, graduation means moving on from Owatonna High School. For Logan Risch, it has also meant moving on from the School Board, where he served for two years as its first-ever student representative.
Risch said his goodbyes at Monday night’s virtual board work session, and was presented with well wishes, a card and gift from officials and district administrators in recognition of his service. Since applying for the position while in 10th grade and being sworn in at the start of his junior year, Risch has attended almost every School Board work session and meeting.
In his two years with the group, Risch has been present as a non-voting member for the new high school bond referendum, the response to a racist social media post circulated at Owatonna High School last winter, and now the COVID-19 pandemic that has necessitated months of distance learning. Although it’s been a busy two years, Risch said he feels lucky to have been present for such momentous decisions.
“I’m happy that there were a lot of bigger issues, because I got to experience them and know how to deal with them better in the future,” he added. Still, he said one of the biggest challenges came in the wake of the racist post. “I don’t have the full perspective of what it’s like to be a student of color, and I didn’t want to say one thing and have it be completely wrong.”
Through his time with the board, Risch said public speaking has been one of his biggest areas of growth — a feeling seconded by Board member Nikki Gieseke at this week’s meeting.
“I remember when we first started and we had board forum, you would just shake your head and say ‘no,’ you didn’t have anything to share. Now, you’re sharing some of your adventures with us, which have been fun to learn about,” she said. “I’ve loved seeing how much more comfortable and confident you’ve gotten in sharing with us.”
Fellow officials Timothy Jensen and Eric Schuster added that they had enjoyed having Risch at their end of the table during his time as representative. Like Gieseke, Schuster said he enjoyed hearing updates from Risch’s time at high school — everything from getting a new car to the rare days of being able to sleep in when school wasn’t in session.
“You’ve always brought a smile to our faces and enjoyment to the board,” said Schuster. “We can’t wait for your replacement to take your place and start up at the next meeting.”
While Risch brought his perspective as a high school student to the board, he also brought his perspective as a board member back to the high school on a few occasions. In his public speaking class, he was assigned to do a debate on the new high school referendum, and was able to draw on his experiences following of the issue as a board member.
One of the highlights of his term happened just this week when he was finally able to see a more detailed design of the new space, which Wold Architects and Engineers unveiled at Monday’s work session.
“It’s been an issue for basically my whole two years on the School Board and it’s been fun following, especially yesterday — seeing the schematics was amazing,” said Risch.
Having a student perspective on the board, and having a member who would be able to actively gather feedback from their peers, was one of the reasons Superintendent Jeff Elstad said he advocated for the position after taking the reins in 2017.
“When I first came to Owatonna as a superintendent, I asked the board about having a student voice and their support was unanimous,” he said. “Having that student school board representative … is a great reminder of who we serve.”
Outside of his time at meetings, Risch has also been able to attend Minnesota School Boards Association conventions and trainings with other elected officials — including an equity seminar that took place at the district office.
Looking back to the assembly sophomore year when he first learned about the opportunity, Risch said he didn’t have high hopes for being selected, although he knew it was something he was interested in as a way to make a difference in the community. In this spirit, Risch encouraged future students to take the risk and apply for the position if it’s something they think they would enjoy.
“It’s also a great way to learn about your local government and what you want to do with your life,” he added.
This fall, Risch will start at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he plans to study international business. He will be replaced on the board by rising junior Daniela Ortiz, who will officially start her term at the June 22 board meeting and serve as the student school board representative for the next two years.
One of the unique traits of living in a small town is how deeply intertwined various aspects of life truly are. Perhaps one of the purest forms that this can be seen in is the relationship between community youth sports and local small businesses.
“Each of our associations requests the support of many of these businesses annually,” said Seth Madole, vice president of the Huskies Fastpitch Club, regarding financial contributions local businesses make to a variety of youth sport associations. “Each year as we work to obtain sponsorships to help offset the fees for participating, many of these businesses step forward to help. Some provide team meals. Others support fundraisers. Many make financial donations.”
When the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the closures of many small businesses throughout the state, the fate of the local small business community seemed to be hanging in the balance. As shops and now restaurants have slowly began to reopen, local business leaders and the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism came together to form JumpStart Owatonna as a way to support small businesses that may be hurting the most.
The program offers grants and in-kind services, and promotes local buys as small business owners start to get back on their feet after months of reduced or eliminated revenue.
Where the youth sports association comes in is how those businesses have supported them throughout the years: in dollars and cents.
“The concept is easy — small businesses have supported us for years, now is the time we show our appreciation and do what we can to help support them,” Madole said. “It just made sense for our youth sports organizations and teams, the small business community has support them throughout our normal years, so it only makes sense to reciprocate that.”
Madole led the charge to reach out to other youth sports associations and clubs, explaining to their representatives that the people who have sponsored teams and hosted fundraisers now need the help they usually provide. Unsurprised, Madole said they were able to immediately collect a sum of roughly $10,000 in contributions to the JumpStart Owatonna grant fund.
“This shows to me that people understand just how important the small businesses are to our community,” Madole said, adding that most all of the associations that contributed dipped into their general fund. “Most associations run with a bit of a surplus, so they dipped into that to help with the effort, but one thing we stressed in our ask was that we understood that there are certainly some clubs or associations who do not have the financial wherewithal and it would be too risky to contribute. We wanted people to contribute only if they were able to, because even a couple hundred dollars toward this initiative goes a long way.”
Brad Meier, Owatonna Chamber president, said that the response from the youth sports associations mirrored the support that the local businesses typically pour into the community.
“Our businesses just really want this to be a health community, and they know that with youth sports and all youth activities that they will get a great return on their contribution over the long haul for this town,” Meier said. “I think they’ve always seen that [youth activities] are just a really great thing to support and important to the overall growth of Owatonna, and this is a great opportunity for the associations to give support back in a time of need.”
Applications for the grant portion of the JumpStart program are already coming in, with the reviews to begin on Thursday. Meier said that they intend for the program to be ongoing as funds are both raised and awarde. Madole, who also sits on the JumpStart grant review committee, said that this process will be vital to keeping Owatonna the tight-knit community that it’s always been.
“These small business owners are the same people that you will see in the stands or that sponsor a little league team or donate to the Parks and Recreation programs or even host a team dinner,” Madole said. “Having these relationships is what makes this effort that much more satisfying.”