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Wichita district leaders see how new northeast schools are taking shape

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, at 4:52 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 11, 2013, at 1:48 p.m.

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Wearing hard hats and dodging piles of concrete mix, plumbing supplies, tile and grout, Wichita school leaders got an inside look Friday at two schools nearing completion in northeast Wichita.

Whether and when those schools will open – and exactly who will fill the classrooms and hallways – remains a mystery.

“It’s Tetris right now,” said board member Lanora Nolan, referring to the popular video game.

“We’re trying to see where everything fits and put everything into place in a way that makes the most sense” financially and politically, she said.

“We want to do what’s best for our district and for the voters who put their faith in us.”

The district is considering a new boundary plan that would close some schools, open new ones, transfer at least two magnet programs to new buildings and shift the lines that determine which schools children attend.

A $370 million bond issue approved in 2008 included the construction of six new schools. Five, including a new high school in Bel Aire, are scheduled to open this fall.

On Friday, district leaders and architects walked through the new high school and a proposed K-8 school about a mile to the west, at 53rd Street North and Woodlawn.

While board members marveled at the high school’s grand windows, spacious corridors, updated science labs, art rooms and porcelain tile floors, the mood was more subdued than it was at a groundbreaking ceremony about a year ago, when board member Connie Dietz said she was excited to see “our dreams fulfilled.”

The dream of a new traditional high school with athletic teams, band programs and a football stadium has been abandoned, at least for now, as the district struggles with budget cuts.

Under a tentative plan, Northeast Magnet High School would relocate to the new school to save more than $10 million a year in operating costs. Boundary changes would shift some students away from overcrowded Heights High School, officials say, but not as many as originally planned under the bond issue.

Northeast Magnet, which doesn’t have sports teams or instrumental music, likely wouldn’t need parts of the new high school, such as team locker rooms, an instrumental music suite and a wrestling room, said Superintendent John Allison. Other features, including a swimming pool, 2,400-seat gymnasium and practice gym, would be used for physical education, he said.

Board members could opt to leave parts of the building unfinished, Allison added. “They’ve got a lot of decisions to make.”

Northeast Magnet’s subject concentrations include visual arts, science and law. Students from anywhere in the city may apply, and they are selected at random to attend. Students can participate in athletics, but only at their base school.

Kenton Cox, an architect with Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey, said the new high school and two K-8s – one in Bel Aire and another in the district’s southeast corner – employ flexible designs.

The current proposal calls for both K-8 schools to open as elementaries, for instance, so science labs may be used as classrooms. Nearby schools or community groups could use its 800-seat auditorium for special events.

Denise Wren, the district’s chief operating officer, and Bill Faflick, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, provided input into the high school’s design.

Wren, a former principal, suggested adding alcoves, or “mini-commons,” to give students more places to gather and to help with traffic flow during lunch. She also nixed the idea of an open balcony overlooking the library – too easy for students to launch stuff over the railing, she said – so designers opted for a window instead.

The high school features a “main street” hall concept to allow easy access from one side of the building to the other, a gym with an indoor walking track and a storm shelter. Natural light pours into hallways, classrooms and stairwells, offering views of the surrounding acreage and the occasional flock of geese. Drop ceilings are fashioned from natural wood.

When some bids came in under budget, officials opted for durable, easy-to-maintain porcelain tile floors over sealed concrete or vinyl tile in common areas, Cox said.

“Some people say you shouldn’t have nice things in schools because they get messed up,” Wren said. “I think you make things nice and set expectations for taking care of things, and kids live up to those expectations.”

Last year, a committee of students from each high school decided the new high school’s colors would be purple, black and silver, Wren said. Some walls are painted purple and lockers are an industrial charcoal gray, but other parts of the building are cobalt blue and terra cotta. Most walls are brick or neutral beige.

Northeast Magnet’s school colors are navy blue and silver; its mascot is the griffin.

Nolan, the board member, said Friday’s tour illustrated how the 2008 bond issue is providing “gorgeous, state-of-the-art learning environments” for Wichita students.

“Anyone who walks through here would just be salivating,” she said. “It not only met my expectations but exceeded them.”

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