‘All kids in Cedar Rapids deserve this,’ says principal of newly built elementary school

Principal Greg O’Connell greets parents and students Aug. 23 on the first day of school at West Willow Elementary in Cedar Rapids. West Willow is the Cedar Rapids school district’s first new school building in almost 20 years. (The Gazette)

Staff members arrive Aug. 23 for the first day of school at West Willow Elementary in Cedar Rapids. West Willow replaces Coolidge Elementary. (The Gazette)

Lockers and flexible learning space are shown on the first day of school at West Willow Elementary. The first school year in the new school building is now almost over. (The Gazette)

An alternative kindergarten class overlooks a shared locker and flex space Aug. 23, the first day of school at West Willow Elementary. The new school has about 450 students. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — West Willow Elementary students and staff are finding their stride in their first year in the first new school building to be built in the Cedar Rapids Community School District in nearly 20 years.

Large windows in hallways and classrooms let in natural light. The hallways are cheery — painted with stripes of yellow, blue and green — and tactile walls encourage students to feel their surroundings.

Students learn in “pods” to make the school feel more like a small community. Each pod has four classrooms, lockers, bathrooms and a collaborative learning space.

There are about 446 preschool through fifth-grade students enrolled in West Willow. About 80 students from Truman, Hoover and Van Buren elementary schools will join West Willow this fall as part of the school district’s facilities master plan.

The 2018 facilities master plan calls for 10 new elementary schools and three renovated ones over the next 15 to 20 years. This process includes the closure and repurposing of eight schools.

The second new school will open this case. The new Maple Grove Elementary will replace Jackson Elementary at 1300 38th St. NW in Cedar Rapids.

Students at Truman Elementary will attend either West Willow or Maple Grove beginning in the 2022-23 school year. Truman Elementary is being repurposed as Truman Early Childhood Center, which will offer preschool and before- and after-school care.

The district’s third new elementary school is being planned at Arthur Elementary on its “annex,” the land across the street from the school at 2630 B. Ave. NO. It is to open by the fall of 2024. Both the old Arthur and Garfield Elementary, 1201 Maplewood Dr. NE, will be closed and the attendance zones combined.

Harrison and Madison elementary school attendance zones also will be combined by fall 2025. District officials are considering two options on how to do that: Renovate the existing Harrison building at 1310 11th St. NW, or build a new building on the grounds of Madison Elementary , 1341 Woodside Dr. NW.

Each new elementary school will serve 500 to 600 students. The district’s elementary schools now vary in size from 200 to 500 students, creating an inequitable distribution of resources.

The elementary school projects are funded by a statewide 1 percent sales tax called SAVE — Secure an Advanced Vision for Education — that’s allocated based on school districts’ certified enrollment.

The Gazette recently sat down with West Willow Principal Greg O’Connell to chat about what it’s like moving in to a new school built with 21st century learning in mind.

Q: What is it like settling a school community into a new building?

A: It has been a wonderful experience, and it’s overwhelming getting used to a new space. When you think about moving houses, you think about unpacking and then you have to find where did I put that? That’s kind of what it’s like here, only 100,000 square feet as opposed to a 2,000-square-foot house.

Q: How does a larger school benefit students academically?

A: Part of the fun for students is seeing such a bright and beautiful place. They’re excited about it. Within the pods, those classroom teachers are teaming together. They’re a lot closer together than they were in the past.

We do have a fourth grade and fifth grade combined classroom this year. It makes it difficult for teachers. The combined classroom will no longer be necessary when more students join West Willow, and we’re able to have three full sections of each grade next year.

You can have three or four teachers collaborating and talking — each teacher has a little different spin on things. They’re able to teach in a different way. One of the biggest pieces we’ve learned over the years is collaboration is key. When you’re able to pull several people together, you’re able to have richer conversation.

Q: West Willow is the first new elementary school to be built under the district’s facilities master plan. What do you think about the plan’s next steps?

A: When you think about this building and walking in here, your initial reactions are how beautiful, how big, the colors. Don’t all kids in Cedar Rapids deserve that? I think our (school) board has echoed that, and they are trying to make that happen. What are the best uses of our money to help our students? Is it sinking more money into the 100-year-old building or is it more cost effective for us to build new?

Q: Do you think there’s some jealousy among other teachers and staff in the district that West Willow is the first new school?

A: I think there’s a little bit of jealously. My wife also teaches in the district — at Arthur — she is a little on the jealous side. We want people to see what it could look like. All the kids in Cedar Rapids deserve this. The goal is that we have this kind of space for all our kids in Cedar Rapids.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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