Digging Deeper: Building an education Part I - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Digging Deeper: Building an education Part I

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Chippewa Valley (WQOW) - The Eau Claire Area School District is considering a referendum to tackle a projected $34 million deficit, but that's not the only reason schools ask voters for money.

School districts often need more funds to upgrade a building or build an entirely new school, which has everyone wondering what's wrong with schools they attended and why they cost so much?

It's something we've grown accustomed to seeing and hearing, an area school district needs to pass a referendum, usually for upgrades. While shells of the buildings built over the last century are still standing, a lot on the inside has changed. 

Plans for Eau Claire Memorial High School were done in 1954 with construction beginning in 1955. The designs of schools in that era were Industrial. 

According to Larry Sommerfeld, the Eau Claire Area School District facilities manager, schools like Memorial were very basic, "Rectangular buildings, rectangular classrooms for the most part. Very linear," he said. "The classrooms had very few outlets because at the time the only thing you needed electric for was for real projectors, the table mounted overhead projector and a calculator or two."

It was the Industrial Era, and structurally it was a sound design with few changes having to be made up to today, but as regulations have changed so has the school. 

 "None of the bathrooms when the building was constructed met accessibility guidelines so we've over the years gradually upgraded the bathrooms and the locker rooms in the buildings and made sure doors are wide enough for people with wheelchairs to progress through the building," Sommerfeld said. "We've added the braille signage so we're in compliance with those requirements. Special-ed classrooms are something we have today that weren't part of the original design of the building. Title IX came in and then as the programs increased we needed to get more space in the locker rooms for the expanding programs. There were no computer labs when the building was built. So we've had to add a few of those stations in the building."

Technology, Title IX, The Americans With Disabilities Act, all had a hand in crafting today's school, but something else that has changed since the 1950s? The cost of energy.

"The outside walls are all brick. There was no insulation on the roof. At that time energy was cheap. It was $0.25 or less for gasoline I mean even for oil at that time," Sommerfeld said. "Energy was so cheap there was no need to put insulation in the building, and that continued through the 60s and into the 70s before gas became more expensive with oil products and so forth."

The cost of energy isn't the only thing that changed from the 1950s to the 1970s. Chippewa Falls Middle School was opened in 1977 and at the time it was fully open concept. While there were some brick walls, the classrooms were wide open. 

Heidi Taylor Eliopoulos, the superintendent of the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District, says when the school opened it was a source of pride and a very progressive school but not practical, " The benefit was if you wanted to do an activity with another classroom you could just come together very easily," she said. "But realistically you are sitting in English class and there's a social studies class taking place right there."

Open concept didn't last.

"Open concept schools were opened in the 70s, but as all the schools that were built as open concept, there are very few that are still open. Within a couple of years they started putting up partitions and walls. It was a great concept, but one that didn't last."

Walls were eventually added, just a few years after the school opened. First in-between classrooms, then between classrooms and the hallway. Finally doors were put in. 

Besides trying to keep students focused and the noise down, Eliopoulos says there was another reason for adding the walls, " The doors started being added largely after columbine, because it changed the notion that we had to have response procedures in the event of a dangerous emergency in a school," she said. "All of a sudden, it made the unthinkable thinkable for schools and schools had to have plans in place of what they were going to do if there was an emergency inside the school. So without exterior classroom walls or doors doing a lock down wouldn't be possible."

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