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Something for everyone at new OHS building

Steele County Times - Staff Photo - Create Article
Bob Olson points to one of the classrooms that will face the Commons area of the new OHS. The framed opening will be a huge window, allowing people to see what’s happening in the classroom. Several of the classrooms that face the Commons will have the windows, part of the project’s “Education on Display” theme. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

With any luck, there are four words you’ll hear often during a publicly funded construction project:

“On budget” and “on time.”

If it happens, project managers are sure to repeat it, especially when the project is the size and scope of the new high school currently under construction in southeast Owatonna.

The $104 million project that sits on 88 acres near the intersection of U.S. Hwys. 14 and 218 was approved three years ago by Owatonna voters.

Ground was broken in May of 2021; the 317,000 square-foot school is scheduled to open next fall, graduating its first class in 2024.

Bob Olson, the director of facilities, infrastructure, and security for the district, is the employee most deeply involved in the project.

As he provides a tour, his descriptions are sprinkled with phrases like, “Isn’t that something?” and “It turned out pretty nice, didn’t it?”

The drawing board

Though the existing high school actually has more square feet, “we’ll have a lot more learning space in this one,” Olson said.

“The other one has tons of tunnels and tons of hallways, which all contribute to the square footage,” he said.

During the design stage, user groups and tours of other schools were key, Olson said.

“We took the things we liked from some, incorporated them into our ideas, then came back and talked to our own people,” he said. “You don’t want to say (to staff), ‘here, we did this – now make it work.’ And it’s beautiful, because what they’re seeing in their classrooms, on the fields, in the stadium, in the gymnasiums, is what they asked for.”

Much of the outdoor work was done first, from the athletic areas to the retention ponds. That was purposeful, Olson said, “because when the concrete and blacktop goes in, you don’t want all the big machinery coming in and tearing it up. It’s like the inside: We work from the top down.”

The four retention ponds were crucial in an area of town that’s seen flooding in the past.

“We cannot allow water to run off this site at a higher rate than before we were here,” Olson said. So the four new retention ponds that nearly surround the campus “fill up with water, then release the water at the same rate as before. In fact, we’re controlling it at a better rate than before, by holding it” and controlling the run-off rate after a heavy rain event.

It’s monitored, he said, “and it’s the law.”

Heading inside

A three-story window beside the north main entrance will feature photos of the city and county’s past, Olson said. Viracon, which is providing much of the glass for the building, “can silkscreen it onto the glass, then we’ll backlight it.”

Inside the main doors will be a locked vestibule, also all glass. Visitors will be unable to go deeper inside the building without first presenting an ID to office staff.

If someone who potentially presents a threat enters the vestibule, staff can hit a lock-in button – which will lock all the doors, including the outer doors – essentially trapping the person inside the vestibule.

In a complete lockdown situation, there are multiple interior doors that swing shut and lock, securing each wing.

Each exterior door is locked and monitored electronically and will sound an alarm if a door is propped open, for example.

“There’s a fine line between designing a school that’s warm and welcoming, and one that looks like a prison,” Olson said. “That’s not conducive to learning. We need to remember, we’re a school, and we’re here to educate kids – but we also need to make sure they’re safe.”

First look

The first thing visitors will see is the soaring, open three-story Commons area, the figurative and literal center of the building.

It will have tables where students can gather for lunch or to work, and a set of learning stairs on the south end.

Learning stairs are being featured more and more frequently in educational settings, providing an informal area for gathering, teaching, socializing, and connecting. They’re wide, deep stairs that are used more like seats or bleachers.

At OHS, there will be outlets for charging and using electronic devices on the stairs.

“The whole design theme is ‘education on display,’” Olson said.

That explains the huge openings in the classrooms that overlook the Commons on all three levels.

“They’ll be all glass,” Olson said. “You’ll be able to see right in and see what’s going on in the classrooms.”


What you won’t see as you travel through the school is row after row of lockers.

“We don’t have a lot of lockers, because kids hardly use them,” Olson said. “We’ll have lockers for all the ninth graders, then 10% of the rest of the students. If they want one, they have to request one, and they’ll get it.”

Another thing you may not see as you walk through some of the wings: Walls on the classrooms. Some of them have three walls, some just two.

“We toured schools with no walls to the classrooms,” Olson said. “The teachers never missed a beat, and neither did the students” as the groups passed through.

The building is full of windows – huge windows, providing plenty of natural light and some pretty nice views.

Nearly every classroom has a window to either the outside or to the Commons area.

Still, “not a window will open,” Olson said, because doing so would upset the carefully calibrated hot water boilers for heat, then the chillers that cool.

The third floor’s west wing will house the social studies and math areas, each room with at least one Smart Board and white board.

The walkway to the east wing of the third floor overlooks the second-floor media center – which is wide open – as well as the Commons.

The east wing will feature world languages and art classrooms, along with a couple of special education rooms.

Down one floor, the east wing of the second floor houses English classrooms; a publishing classroom for the yearbook and school newspaper; teachers’ rooms and a larger special education area  – including one room that leads directly to the walking track at the top of the main gym.

“We really tried to think of all of our kids and all different styles of learning, and all different behaviors,” Olson said. “What’s going to help them the most? They’re going to be close to the gym” and quiet rooms on the second floor that offer those options.

There are special education classrooms on every floor and in every wing, keeping the students included in everything.

The west side of the second floor features more English classrooms, the Career Pathways area and student services, which includes social workers, counselors, ELL (English Language Learners) area and more conference rooms.

There are also science classrooms on the west side, each with its own prep room.

On the main

Back on the main floor, the Commons isn’t the only star.

On the west wing is a culinary arts area, complete with a window where those students might be able to sell their creations to their peers.

Nearby is the family and consumer science area, or FACS.

With a growing focus on teaching the trades, a partnership with Riverland Community College has now turned into a co-location.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester recently donated eight medical beds to the OHS nursing program, and some members of Riverland Community College staff will come to the school to teach – and use the nursing area for its own programs.

“It’ll look like eight hospital rooms, with the curtains for privacy and all. Our kids can walk out of high school with a CNA,” Olson said, referring to a certified nursing assistant certification.

Riverland, then, will convert its nursing lab “into a mechatronics lab so our students in turn can go out and learn new things about manufacturing and robotics,” said OPS Superintendent Jeff Elstad, “and have the equipment to work with.”

Also on the west wing of the main floor will be more science classrooms, as well as the school nurse’s office, conference rooms, teacher work rooms, and administrative offices.

Across the Commons, on the east side, is the physical education complex, with the main gymnasium, a practice gym, locker and changing rooms, the wrestling room and tornado shelter.

The Harry Wenger Music Suite is also on the east wing, and features the choir room, the band room, the orchestra room, practice rooms, and storage.

The new auditorium, complete with an orchestra pit that can be covered, has seating for more than 800.

The finish line

The building is mostly enclosed, as windows continue to go in and the roofs are completed.

“Our hope is that we will take possession sometime between late June and early July,” Elstad said, “and we’re going to do something a bit different next year for our students. Because it’s a new place, we’re gong to take some time with each of our classes, ninth through 12th, to kind of be there on their own as a class, to find their way around this new space.”

The staff, too, will have a couple of extra days in the fall to acclimate to the building.

District officials have “loosely discussed a grand opening, maybe homecoming” 2023, Elstad said. “The purpose of that is because when you have a building, it’s not really a school until the students and staff have ‘lived’ in it a few weeks.”

The school really does seem to have it all, Olson agreed.

“We combined a lot of everything we needed, and condensed it,” he said. “The cool thing is the bids came in so darn low because we were at the perfect timing before COVID. We’re not spending any more money, but we got a lot more stuff for our kids.

“They deserve it,” Olson said. “I think our community is going to be pretty proud of this building, once they get in and see it.

“And we’re still under budget.”

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