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Verona Area School District

‘A labor of love': New VAHS has collaborative spaces, state-of-the-art learning facilities

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Verona Area High School July 2020

A light-filled atrium sitting three stories high.

A new performing arts center that can hold an audience of 1,000.

A spacious, open floor plan outside the classrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, conference rooms and alternative seating arrangements within the classrooms, all designed for maximizing collaboration, socialization and inclusiveness.

Those are some of the many jaw-dropping features you’ll see as you walk through the new Verona Area High School, which contractor J.H. Findorff finished in early June.

Though staff are setting up and moving into the school, high school students likely won’t walk the halls for a while, as they’ll start the year with virtual learning. But when the district brings them back to school, there will be plenty of collaborative spaces and state-of-the-art facilities for them to use.

“This project was a labor of love,” Verona Area High School principal Pam Hammen told the Press in mid-July. “The environment we have created to facilitate learning is amazing.”

Verona Area High School July 2020

The quiet study room in the library of the new Verona Area High School. The library features floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the rooms to allow for increased natural light looking out over the Sugar River valley to the south and west.

The process of expanding district facilities to accommodate its future growth started in 2006, leading to the planning for a new high school after a ‘space needs’ study in 2015 indicated specific needs and 2016 referendum secured the land from what originally had been planned for a 100-plus-acre shopping and residential center.

A year later, in April 2017, district voters passed a $182 million referendum that was the largest referendum in state history at the time.

The district then spent a year working on the design of the building, leading up to its groundbreaking in April 2018, superintendent Dean Gorrell noted. The Visioning Design Team – comprising district officials, high school staff and consultants from Eppstein Uhen architects – and a Core Team with administrators and board members and held public meetings to determine the look, the schematics, the interior amenities and priorities.

Members of those teams toured other newly built high schools in Missouri as a part of the design process.

“We engaged to really whiteboard what this school would look like,” he said. “We started with a blank slate and big bubble ideas of what’s important.”

The result was a design that emphasized natural light and open spaces, though many of the original plans had to be altered in early 2018, after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, raised security concerns.

It also, naturally, has added technology, including Apple TVs throughout the building, where students can project the screens of their school-supplied iPads, a splittable screen in a large-group instruction room, a digital recording studio and a commercial-quality culinary arts kitchen.

Other features include quiet study rooms and conference rooms in the library, eight automotive bays for the shop class and a clinicals room where students can earn their certified nursing assistant certifications on campus, rather than having to travel to Madison College for the dual-credit class.

Verona Area High School July 2020

There are multiple areas in the new Verona Area High School that have a variety of seating where students can work collaboratively or on their own.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a better (career and technical education) program in the area,” district educational technology coordinator Rita Mortenson said. “They’re just amazing, and the opportunities that we’re going to be able to provide students (are) really a testimony to the commitment our community has to really make sure that all students are college- and career-ready. These programming areas are second to none.”

The school also has endless areas for students to either work independently or collaborate – with end caps to the hallways that feature a variety of seating grouped together so students can sit together, conference rooms built into some of the classrooms and quiet study rooms in the library.

And with that comes plenty of spaces where students can hang out, too – a large common area on the second floor where they can eat lunch overlooks the atrium, and a 100-foot wide “social stair” sits near the fieldhouse and extends both inside and outside the building.

“I think that this is going to feel more like a college campus, in that students have the opportunity to seek out learning spaces that best fit their individual learning needs or style,” Hammen said.

Verona Area High School July 2020

The “social stairs” on the southern side of the new Verona Area High School. The stairs, which are both inside and outside of the building, are a place that district administration hope are heavily used by students during lunchtimes or for studying.

It’s also filled with a variety of colorful seating, ranging from low cushions lining the walls of the classrooms, to normal-height tables and chairs, to pub-height tables and chairs, all meant to give students a variety of seating options to make them as comfortable as possible and foster learning.

All of the furniture is designed to be easily moveable, so that a teacher can rearrange their classroom in minutes from a traditional layout to a group circle to maximize discussion.

Inside and out, the social stairs are also designed to create a space where students can not only work, but also interact with their peers, Hammen said.

And, as an homage to the site that the school was built on, a little bit of the outdoors was brought inside.

Throughout the school, stone tiles and horizontal panels of wood can be seen striping the walls, creating boxes along the atrium or serving as accent pieces. The tiles are a tribute to the Ice Age era, where layers of glaciers covered what is now Verona, and the wood for the accents around the school was harvested directly off the site when it was excavated.

“It’s just breathtaking, and it warms my heart that there’s milled wood there, that they were that forward-thinking with all sorts of little accent features,” Mortenson said.

Verona Area High School July 2020

The wall along a set of stairs in the atrium of the new Verona Area High School are covered with recovered wood from trees on the campus. Many areas within the building feature the recovered wood as decoration.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.

News Editor

Kimberly Wethal joined Unified Newspaper Group in 2018, where she serves as the news editor for four publications and primarily covers the Verona Area School District and the City of Fitchburg. She previously was an intern with UNG starting in 2013.