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Waltham's new school gets an A-plus

How do you like the new Waltham School, Drew?

“It’s more comfortable,” answered Drew Depenbrock, a student at Utica’s new school building.

What do you think, Reece?

“The school is way bigger,” said Reece Doerr, “and there’s air-conditioning.”

And how about you, Brileigh?

“It’s a way better learning environment,” answered Brileigh Holland.

There you have it. We polled numerous students, teachers and administrators about Waltham Elementary’s $10 million school, and the feedback was unanimously positive.

Nearly six months after district officials cut the ribbon at the centrally-located school, an informal survey found children and faculty still reveling in the new building and its innovative design. Waltham had long endured a space crunch and opted not only to go bigger but to go brighter (more natural light and lively colors) and more portable (with flexible seating and partitions).

The honeymoon, it seems, is far from over.

“We’ve had our hiccups,” said Nina Mitchell, an instructional coach with 10 years’ experience, “but this has been the best start to school ever.”

Superintendent Kristi Eager agreed. Students are performing well, disciplinary infractions are down (office referrals have slid by half) and morale is generally high. Parents, taxpayers and other interested folks have taken note and have asked to be shown around; Eager has happily — and frequently — obliged the many visitors.

“Sometimes I feel like a tour guide,” Eager said, laughing. “I have had a couple different Rotary clubs come for tours, many public entities, other schools and school boards, besides our community and guests attending evening activities.

“I hear words used such as ‘amazing,’ ‘inviting,’ ‘I wish I could go back to school and come here,’ ‘the kids must love it,’ ‘impressive.’”

That’s music to her ears because it wasn’t so long ago that Eager and the Waltham School Board had to persuade a wary and skeptical public that the project not only was worthwhile but could be realized on schedule and within budget.

Though the project isn’t technically finished — stray punch-list items remained, and Eager is ironing out some kinks in the mechanical system — Waltham pulled off what had seemed ambitious if not impossible.

The $10 million project was completed in time to begin the 2019-20 school year and the district paid for it with bonds that will be retired through TIF district funds, not with property taxes.

Any remaining skeptics were silenced once and for all in May, when Waltham’s tax rate actually slid 3.5% — and this while contractors were busy with hammers, saws and paintbrushes.

The public feedback abruptly shifted in tone and the open house was a hit.

The litmus test, of course, would be how students responded to their new quarters and here again the feedback was encouraging even before teachers noticed they were handing out fewer disciplinary citations.

Karin Kummer, a kindergarten teacher, said the single biggest improvement was space. Waltham had long been dealing with a space crunch and teachers were aware of some obvious headaches and limitations, but the additional square footage has uncorked minds and creative impulses.

“Just having a bigger space has made it wonderful for kids,” Kummer said. “Now they can move around and use the space more creatively.”

Kids have marveled at the open spaces, bright colors and flexible seating and shared their reviews liberally with the faculty.

“Some kids have stated that it’s like going to Starbucks instead of school,” Eager said.

Any project of this size was bound to have at least one bugaboo and that proved to be the parking.

“One thing the district did was to add striping to the north parking outer circle, which created an additional 17 defined spaces,” Eager said. “Since we have not experienced one full school year we are unsure as to how many additional spaces are still needed. The district has the space to add additional parking, and we are currently working with our engineers and contractors as to how big and the best location for additional parking.”

And one final hurdle will be figuring out what to do with the two since-vacated school buildings. Waltham North on North 33rd Road and Waltham South, the former Utica Grace School, both are vacant and both have “had some inquiry,” Eager said. The district continues to look at our options for both buildings.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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