Walk through the new Wildwood Elementary School in Grant and you notice the shapes, from the high slanted ceilings that make the most of natural light to the hills that roll gracefully outside.
The $18 million building opens on Tuesday, replacing a 54-year-old structure nearby in Mahtomedi, and for art teacher Kristi Eckert, that means trading in a basement view of a parking lot for a new “beautiful, inspirational view of nature.”
For Principal Mark Hamre, the new Wildwood is not about any particular feature or two, but about what it all means for instruction. “We now have the space to really teach the way we want to teach,” he said after a recent tour.
This week, about 600 kindergartners through second-graders, close to a capacity crowd, are expected at a school in a district with strong appeal to families. A big reason is student performance. In state test results released last week, 89.7 percent of third-graders at O.H. Anderson Elementary — the school to which Wildwood feeds — were proficient in math in 2012-13.
The district also is giving a boost to its youngest learners by setting up a wing at the new building for preschoolers.
Still, Wildwood was not without its challenges.
Groundbreaking for the new school was delayed after several Grant residents argued that the school was too close to an old toxic dump site. Objections were raised, too, about the routing of buses across the Gateway Trail, which is used by walkers, joggers and cyclists.
Mayor Tom Carr, who went to school at the original Wildwood, said that the new building is “real nice.” But he has heard other residents complain of “overkill,” he said, with the school’s slanted roof being one concern. More costly to repair? He couldn’t say.
There is still talk, too, Carr said, about the old dump site to the west of the school. From there, about 550 tons of waste sludge were hauled away during a 1990s cleanup. The mayor said that he was convinced there’s no cause for concern at the school, which was built clear of the old dump.
“They’ve had it tested eight different ways,” he said. “Everything I’ve seen says it’s mitigated.”
In his view, if there are any safety worries, they’re about the recreational trail and the lack of a fence between it and the school.
The school says it’s fine, “they have cameras,” Carr said. “But they know what I think.”
Hamre, during a recent visit, did point up to a camera above the front door. Cameras are at each public entrance, he said.
Asked about security personnel, he said that Wildwood will not have an officer on duty. But at the start of school, he said, the main entrance door will lock, and visitors will have to enter through the school office.
Space to learn
If the new school seems designed for maximum academic impact, it’s because staff members — as well as parents, school board members and others — were part of the planning process, the principal said.
Two summers ago, he recalled, LHB, the building’s architect, divided the local advisory team into three groups, took a bunch of wood blocks representing various building elements, and then dumped them onto a table and said: Build your school.
“We took the best ideas from each model,” Hamre said.
The building totals about 87,000 square feet and has two stories. On the first, early childhood is on one end of the building and kindergarten on the other. On the second, first and second grades are situated the same way. In the center of the building, then, between the wings of classrooms, are areas for special education and Spanish, music, art and physical education.
Those rooms are “centrally located, and again, by design,” the principal said, “so when students travel to those areas they don’t have to go through someone else’s area.” In the old Wildwood, he said, going to music and art classes meant walking through the first-grade hallway.
Natural air, light
Each classroom has eco-friendly features that include light sensors and air diffusers that push fresh air into the lower half of the room and stale air up and out through vents in the ceiling. Hamre said that he will be watching to see if the air system contributes to fewer sick days for both staff and students.
Carr, the mayor, when asked to compare the new building to the old one, said that he will miss the “sense of community” that came with having a school within the city of Mahtomedi. Kids could walk or ride their bikes to school, he said.
But then, the trade-off isn’t bad, either.
“You have great grounds around you,” he said. “You have nature. It’d be a great place to be a kid.”
A new natural playground is in the works, too. For now, Eckert, the art teacher, is hopeful that the hills, the trees and the wetlands will work wonders in her classroom, too.
On a window ledge she has positioned letters to read: “CREATE.”