OWATONNA — One of the primary motivators in the Owatonna Public Schools’ push for a new high school will now be one of the guiding principles in that facility’s design. — namely, an emphasis on physical spaces that will enhance students’ college- and career-readiness in a world that looks vastly different from when the current, 100-year-old high school was constructed.

During the coming year’s planning and design phase, Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath said he and his staff will be working closely with Wold Architects and Engineers to think about how their learning goals can be enhanced by the structure of the new building, set to go in on 88 acres near the intersection of highways 14 and 218.

For now, Kath emphasized the importance of bringing in both modern laboratories and flexible learning spaces that can be used by multiple disciplines, as well as business and community visitors. He added that he hopes the new facility will strengthen partnerships with local companies, providing yet another conduit for district students to explore and find jobs in the area.

“I get that some students are going to go off to a two-year or four-year program but then, have we made a strong enough connection where after that they’re going to want to come back?” he explained.

Brad Meier, of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism, has also praised the new facility for being able to help get students properly trained and hopefully interested in joining the local workforce.

“As our businesses are growing and competing on the workforce side of things, it’s a challenge. We need to be able to attract people to our community and we also need to provide our students who are here an opportunity to see what’s available to them,” he explained.

Both Meier and district officials have looked to a recently-built high school in Alexandria as an example of what the new Owatonna facility could look like.

Rick Sansted, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching & Learning with the Alexandria Public Schools, said he has noticed strengthened connections between the school and the local business community since their new high school opened its doors in 2014 — in part because of the planning discussions that had to take place when the design was being decided.

“I think in the design and the dialogue that happened in the community around the building of the new high school, the school district and the community engaged heavily with our business partners,” said Sansted. “That dialogue helped to shape some of the experiences that our students are having today.”

Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad has also emphasized the importance of involving both local residents and business interests in the layout and planning for the new Owatonna facility. He said when it comes time to start laying out some of these welding laboratories and other more industrial training spaces, the district plans to consult with Steele County companies on what their work spaces look like and what they may hope to see from workforce development at the school.

Once the facility is built, Kath said he hopes the creation of some of these modern training areas may even entice businesses to come in and provide internships and mentorships at the school.

“Sometimes a barrier to an internship is that students don’t have transportation, whereas now we’re hoping that we have flexible space in our building where people can come to us, as well,” he explained.

Sansted noted that, in Alexandria, the new facility has helped to encourage outside members of the community to come in and engage with the school. “We have a number of volunteers that come in from our local businesses and we have students who are partnering with businesses on projects.”

Kath also sees Owatonna’s move as a chance to expand the school’s workforce readiness programs and get students better prepared for what they might face after graduation. While Owatonna High School has gotten new pieces of industrial equipment over the years, Kath said that the work stations themselves at the current facility don’t look like what students will be going into once they leave and enter technical fields.

“When we’re looking at things like nursing, we’re looking at working with the Mayo Clinic to create an actual health care lab that will allow students to have hands-on experiences with patients,” he said. “We’ll be able to simulate those types of experiences.”

Instead of adding new programs, Kath said planning for the facility is more about deepening areas of study that already exist to a lesser extent at the school.

“As of right now, many students do have the opportunity to start that [career pathway]. Now, what we’re looking for is how we can enhance it with the new resources,” he said. “Instead of just one course you might be able to take on it, we’re looking at one to three courses students could take to advance that path.”

While he said many core classes and required coursework will stay the same, he added that the environments in which students are doing that work might also look significantly different in the new space. The focus, he said, will be on learning areas that allow for increased individual work and self-directed projects on top of time in more traditional classroom settings.

“Many spaces will look like a general classroom that you would see traditionally. The hope, as we design it, is to have flexible spaces that then allow for teachers to do a lot of that individual instruction, as well,” he said. “There will be more opportunities to flex out into open space. We have some of those spaces currently, but it’s not available to all of our teachers within our building.”

Although designing a completely new space now allows the district to more fully realize some of these goals, Kath said the idea of creating more personalized, student-motivated learning opportunities has long been on the district’s mind.

“Individualizing and pulling from the students’ interests is what we know drives high commitment and high attention to learning,” he explained. “We know that [information] is more likely to be retained and make them career- and college-ready.”

In addition to helping students’ engagement, Kath said he believes this more inquiry-driven model will also be an asset to prepare teens for jobs and post-secondary learning after they graduate.

“So much of rote learning we can pull from technology — Google searches, online resources — what we know engages students and gives them skills that businesses want is, ‘Can they problem solve? Are they creative? Can they design an inquiry within projects that they are creating?’” he explained.

While Kath said that much of the design will be ideated by a core group of stakeholders, he added that specific user groups will also be created to give feedback on that team’s design. Like Elstad, Kath added that there will be junctures throughout where the proposal will be turned outward and given the opportunity to garner broader feedback before moving ahead.

As for the core group, Elstad and Paul Aplikowski — a partner with Wold Architects and Engineers — stressed that the emphasis will be on high-frequency users of the high school, namely staff, students and parents. However, Elstad added that he also wanted community voices on the panel that represent the diversity of Owatonna.

The district will likely put out an application for the core group online and via social media late next week, with a couple-week window before reviewing received materials. Elstad added that core group meeting minutes will be made public, and that there will be opportunities for the community to give feedback at different junctures in the design process.

Kath also encouraged residents to contact him at the school at any point to share ideas, questions or concerns. “We only get one chance to do this in probably the next hundred years, so we want to do it right,” he said.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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