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A look inside the new Oltman Middle School

Workers put the finishing touches on the new Oltman Middle School in Cottage Grove. The $72 million school will accommodate as many as 1,100 students. It was built on a 57-acre parcel of land in the northwest corner of Cottage Grove. The land is adjacent to the city boundaries of Newport and St. Paul Park and approximately a half mile south of the Woodbury and Cottage Grove border. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 10
The second floor of the new Oltman Middle School features an overlook onto the cafeteria. The cafeteria has a rubberized floor and other sound features so students don't have to shout to can talk to one another. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 10
The cafeteria at the new Oltman Middle School features abundant natural lighting. It also features a rubberized floor that helps absorb sound so students don't have to shout during lunch. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 10
Old and new technology coexist at the new Oltman Middle School in Cottage Grove. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 10
Mike Vogel, interim facilities and construction manager for District 833, oversaw the construction of the new Oltman Middle School. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 10
The auditorium at the new Oltman Middle School seats 412. Its perforated ceiling panels absorb sound. Architect Paul Youngquist said they created a computer model to identify the acoustic performance of the space. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia6 / 10
The swimming pool at the new Oltman Middle School features a zero-depth entry, with a ramp that allows easy access for wheelchair users and other physically challenged students. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia7 / 10
Media specialist Erik Thomley walks through the media center at the new Oltman Middle School. The windows feature blinds under glass so they can't make noise. There's also a green room, and those round things hanging from the ceiling are extra power cords. Paul Youngquist of ARY Architects said the layout was partly inspired by a waiting area at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. "This is a place to get stuff done," he said. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia8 / 10
The new Oltman Middle School features three special needs classrooms designed, respectively, for children with autism, developmental cognitive disorder and emotional behavioral disorder. The room for autistic children features soft stools that let the user wiggle back and forth. “It can be very calming for a student who is strugglien with their day,’ Hagebock said. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia 9 / 10
Oltman Middle School principal Joni Hagebock conducted a tour Aug. 31 of the new Oltman Middle School. School lockers have a scan card function for those who may have difficulty working a combination lock. "It allows students who many have some type of difference to feel included," Hagebock said. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia10 / 10

There's the lingering tang of fresh paint as well as lots of hammering and drilling and sweeping, but the new, $72 million dollar Oltman Middle School still is an impressive facility.

“It’s definitely got that ‘wow’ factor when you walk in,” math teacher Willie Taylor said.

Design features include an extended canopy at the main entrance. It functions as a shelter from rain and snow, which means parents more space to drop off their kids without jockeying for the nearest spot to the main entrance. 

Erin and Jim Fettig took their daughter Emma to see the school last week. Emma, who is starting the 7th grade, previously attended the old Oltman Middle School, whose main structure is 67 years old, in St. Paul Park.  Jim Fettig served on School District 833’s Long Range Facilities Task Force, who helped vet plans for boundary changes and new school buildings.

“I was excited for how excited our daughter was when she saw the space,” Erin Fettig said. “I’m glad she got the experience in th grade so she has an appreciation for a new school. It’s Christmas morning for her.”

The building was designed by ARY Architects, who also designed East Ridge High School. Architect Paul Youngquist said they devised the spaces for maximum flexibility and adaptation. Classrooms are outfitted with glass folding doors that open up onto collaborative learning spaces. Teachers and students have the option of accessing these spaces during class. 

"You have to have a building that’s isn’t just a series of classroom after classroom," Youngquist said. "It has to be a building where teachers can work with students in different types of environments, different types of sizes of groups."

In case of an emergency, the school has a remote lockdown system. At the push of a button in the principal's office, panels will drop from the ceiling to seal off the pods from the main corridor and from each other. But students will still be able to access exit doors, Younquist said. 

The fire alarms are installed in the ceiling so a trespasser or assailant can't use them to confuse or misdirect the students, Younquist said. Should they hear the alarm bells - and they will hear them, he said - students will know it's the real thing.

The design of the school's media center was partly inspired by a space at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.  Youngquist said he was impressed with the furnishings and power sources and other features at the airport that allowed travelers to create their own personal spaces where they could be productive.

"It's a place to get things done," he said.

One particularly intriguing feature: All teachers will wear microphones that are wirelessly connected to speakers in the ceiling. Principal Jodi Hagebock said it will ensure that every student hears what the teacher is saying no matter where they are in the room. And by using their normal voice, teachers can relate better to students. 

"We've all had to use our 'teacher voice,'" she said, demonstrating by raising hers to an authoritative, directing-traffic volume. "It puts stress on the teacher."

The common locker areas are close to the bathrooms and water fountains to allow for quicker access. Students have just four minutes between bells to find their next class.

Students who get flustered spinning a combination lock can instead use a scan card to open their locker.

“It allows students who may have some type of a difference to feel included,” Hagebock said.

The school was built as part of the district’s long-range facilities plan, which is intended to address enrollment growth and building needs over the next 10 years. It was also intended to replace the old Oltman Middle School. That school is being converted to the new Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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