Rising out of the beehive of activity in the fast-growing Terravessa development, Forest Edge Elementary School is a beacon of the area’s future, blending natural themes with modern design.
Whenever students and parents finally get to visit, they’ll likely be impressed by an elementary school that’s probably unlike anything they’ve seen.
With a multitude of windows letting natural light through the expansive 130,00-square-foot building, the school’s design emphasizes the area’s natural look, featuring an outdoor classroom, gardens and planting beds and a school forest.
Nature themes are found throughout the building, with green carpeting that looks like grass and plastic chairs that like stones — even some wood from trees harvested to make room for the school was used in countertops. The school is also believed to be the first “Net Zero” public school in Wisconsin, producing more energy through solar power than it uses.
It’s a remarkable building in scope and design, but so far, only a few dozen staff members have actually seen the inside because of social distancing restrictions. Forest Edge principal Kerri Modjeski, who would normally be busy giving tours for new families, has instead spent plenty of time walking around the building with her Chromebook, giving virtual tours.
“You just keep finding ways to adapt,” she told the Observer last week. “And the kids will do better than they expect, getting into the routine.”
As strange as it is to open a new school during a global pandemic, Modjeski said the thing she still can’t wrap her around is seeing how three years of planning has turned into reality “from the blueprints up.”
“To think we were trudging around in these woods a year-and-a-half ago,” she said. “You kind of ‘Minecraft’ it in your head, and it’s almost surreal that we designed this as a team, and people are now working here and can see elements they suggested; different features in classrooms or the furniture.”
As she looked out at the multiple construction projects through the school’s spacious second story windows, Modjeski called it a “great front row seat to the neighborhood” when school does finally get back in full swing again.
“It will be really neat for kids to see the neighborhood develop,” she said. “(Now), a lot of our rooms look pretty empty, and it’s just sad because teachers live for (the first day of school), especially in a new building. But we’ll take kids however we can get’ em.”
Over two summers, the district’s design group visited several dozen schools in the area, also traveling as far as Milwaukee and the Fox Valley.
In 2018, the visits focused on building design, while last summer, the group looked at furniture.
“We really made tracks,” Modjeski said. “It’s interesting, because you could get a sense of what different schools value in how they program for kids. Every building had a different feel, and it was nice to be able to say, ‘I want to do something like this.’”
The group’s feedback resulted in several features, including areas for (eventual) large group teaching and some classrooms joined for partner teaching. Modjeski said many educators’ ideas were used.
“It’s things like having rows of hooks in the hallway where kids leave the cafeteria and go out, so they can hang their coats and go right outside,” she said. “The location of where sinks are – having low ones and higher ones; just that teacher perspective. It was amazing working with (Bray Architects) because we would present an idea and they would come back with an answer for it on paper.”
Modjeski said the school’s design was also altered a bit to improve security in the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Those mainly were adjustments to have more durable windows. The design also allows school officials to remotely lock down various sections of the building in case of emergency to help protect students and staff.
“It’s designed in a way you can still get to a space and not be seen within those closed-off sections,” she said.
Variations on a theme
The various grades (K-6) all have their own color-themed sections, with similar, yet slightly different furniture and surroundings.
The desks are destined to be configured in different ways, bringing them together if needed for group projects, while chairs are a bit bigger at each level, with a variety of seating options, particularly for older grades.
The common areas include a large cafeteria near the building’s entrance, complete with a small stage. There’s also a special education room for small group instruction, a dedicated STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) lab, which will eventually house a 3D printer and other equipment and a community room for groups such as Scouts to use for meetings.
Throughout the building are little nooks with desks and work areas for paraprofessionals, which Modjeski calls “‘touchdown spaces.”
Everywhere there are various elements to help provide character – mainly mature-themed, like raised beds for kids to plant seeds and windows placed at “kid level” to see things like meters and gauges that show the building’s energy production and usage.
“It’s letting kids see a bit behind the scenes,” Modjeski said.