For more than 10 years, the Waltham Elementary School District in North Utica, Illinois, dreamed of having one building for all their K-8 students who had been spread among two outdated elementary schools. Serving a student population of fewer than 250, the project goal was never to redesign how education environments are used. Instead, the objective was much simpler: to ensure this small, rural countryside town near Starved Rock State Park could remain viable.
However, nearly four years after the new Waltham School opened its doors in 2019, redesigning education is precisely what this district has done – not just in terms of space, but in the ways in which education at Waltham is being delivered.
Flexibility Under One Roof
For Kathy Schultz, a K-8 STEAM teacher, combining schools under one roof has been a game-changer. As the art teacher for all K-8 students, she split her time between both North and South campuses, traveling back and forth.
Schultz is not alone. Dan Gustafson, who teaches math to grades 5-8, worked in Waltham’s North campus for a year before transitioning to the district’s South campus to teach junior high math. He recalls the challenges of keeping the kids engaged, particularly during the hotter days of fall and spring, and having to creatively come up with ways to make their spaces more flexible and usable.
He says there has been an increase in student achievement as well, but even more so in other essential student-learning areas.
“Behavior and attendance issues have declined because the kids are excited to come here,” says Gustafson. “They are proud of their school.”
Operating (Walls) Like Never Before
One of the favorite facets of the new space among both faculty and students is operable walls. A feature throughout the instructional spaces, the moving walls can be opened or closed for maximum flexibility of the space. And opening the walls has opened endless possibilities.
For kindergarten teacher Karin Kummer, the operable walls have allowed her to better meet her students’ academic needs.
The operable walls are student approved as well. “I like the opening walls and the ability to combine classrooms if you need it for more space,” says seventh grader John Sowers. “At the beginning of the year for social studies and language arts, we used to have that as one class, so they would open the wall and we would have more room.”
Making Things POP
The operable walls have also led to a transformational collaboration between art and STEM. Now a team-teach approach, the newly formed STEAM team is working on projects they have never done before, including growing, harvesting, and marketing their own popcorn.
“This is something Jim McCabe, our school board president, has wanted to do for a long time,” says Schultz. “But by myself? I said ‘Jim, I can’t really do all this – this isn’t really art.’”
But with K-8 STEM teacher Brittany Culjan by her side, the newly formed co-teaching team gave it a try.
The seventh-grade popcorn project is so popular that the farm has become a schoolwide project that the STEAM team hopes to expand with a hot house and more.
The collaboration has led to a number of innovations and new class projects, including designing pipelines and building birdhouses. “I don’t how you could have done that kind of a project with one teacher,” says Kummer, whose son also attends Waltham. “But now you have those teachers working together and you can do so many more things.”
Schultz says this innovative collaboration would not have been possible before, especially with both shared staff members traveling back and forth between campuses.
One Big Happy Family
Coming together as one school has provided a greater sense of community and connection throughout Waltham. Not only are the staff no longer divided or traveling between campuses, but neither are families with multiple K-8 students. Staff have noticed the impact It has made on students being able to see their siblings in the same building. They also have noticed the impact on their connection to the students.
Before, it would take a lot of advanced planning to do a multigrade event. With the new school combining K-8, seeing engagement among grades is commonplace. It’s not unusual to see eighth graders assisting kindergartners during Game Day or leading activities during Play Day.
“It’s pretty fun to have the younger kids here,” says Waltham eighth grader Hayden Pode. “This year, we made a fun day for them because they didn’t get a field trip.”
“The older kids have taken on more of a leadership role because they know they are in the building with those younger kids,” says Gustafson. “They are seeing each other in the hallway and engaging. I think it also gives those younger kids more people to look up to.”
To build on this multigrade engagement and mentoring the new building has facilitated, the school has also instituted Tribe Time, a weekly opportunity for students to choose a teacher-led special interest study and work with students and teachers throughout the building.
Schultz agrees and thinks the possibilities for Waltham are now endless.
“I just think we’ll get bigger and have more opportunities,” says Schultz. “Even though we are a small community, and our enrollment is just at 200, there is no ceiling. If someone comes up with an idea, our superintendent is going to help us make it happen if it helps kids.”
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