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Something to roar about at Penn Elementary

Penn staff, students celebrate new addition

NORTH LIBERTY– As a class of Penn Elementary School students file into their brand new media center, they set their books on the library tables and settle down on the polka-dotted area rug in front of a rocking chair, ready for story time.
It impresses Principal Kristy Heffner, so she grants the class a much-desired “roar”—a reward inspired by Penn’s mascot, the panther, to positively reinforce good behavior by a class. The pleased students turn their attention to teacher librarian Debra Dorzweiler, who sits down in the rocking chair, cracks open The Library Gingerbread Man and begins reading.
As Heffner makes her way back to her office to write up a “roar reward,” she speaks about Penn Elementary’s new building addition.
The $9.4 million, 23,000-square-foot addition includes eight new classrooms, a gymnasium and a media center. Along with the new part of the facility, the existing building was heavily updated as well: all rooms received new lighting, flooring, cabinetry, windows and doors. The project added a new geothermal heating and cooling system, technology upgrades, roof work, an extended parking lot, playground revisions, a larger front office and numerous other subtle changes. Thanks to the layout of the addition, the school now also has a small courtyard.
Having the brand new addition is wonderful, but the renovations to the old building are what really tie it all together, Heffner said. In fact, aside from subtle differences like the widening of the hallway, it’s hard to tell where the main building ends and the new addition begins. Instead, the whole building has a shine of newness to it.
“The floors, lights, ceiling, painting—those things really pull it all together,” Heffner said. “The building looks cohesive.”
Before the project, Penn teachers were using six portable classrooms outside the building. Thanks to the eight new classrooms, they are able to house all students under one roof. Also expanded was the amount of space available for Penn’s special education program and a newly-added preschool program.
The project was part of the Iowa City Community School District’s Facilities Master Plan. From spring 2014 through fall 2015, a construction team worked on the new addition during the school year and completing renovations on the old classrooms during summer vacation. Teachers willingly packed up their classrooms both summers to give the crew room to work. During those two school years, it was evident upon entering the building that work was underway, like unfinished ceilings and concrete floors in the halls, but teachers made sure learning continued uninterrupted, Heffner remarked.
“I think teachers should get a lot of credit for keeping up a good learning environment in the midst of dust and construction,” Heffner said.
There are still some tasks left—signs to hang, shrubbery to plant in the courtyard—but staff and students do feel largely settled in. The school had a ribbon-cutting ceremony in December before winter break. Held in the new gymnasium, the ceremony included a sing-along and a piece of art displayed for each child in the building.
The original Penn Elementary was built 55 years ago. Although the library would have been state-of-the-art in the 1960s, builders at that time had no concept of computers, much less the tablets, Chrome books, and other electronics used in today’s schools. The old library lacked sufficient outlets, requiring staff to be creative with how to use the necessary technology given the building’s structural constraints.
Dorzweiler said the new media center has hugely enhanced her job as a teacher librarian. The amount of space allows staff to create zones for different activities, she said. A student can read quietly on a couch in one area of the library, and another student can speak to the librarian or secretary while a full class enjoys story time or works in a new-and-improved computer lab. In the smaller old library, now a multi-purpose area, such flexibility wasn’t possible.
Another reason for celebration is the school’s new gymnasium. The old gym was one of the smallest in the district, even though Penn’s more than 500 students make it one of the largest schools in the district. To accommodate P.E. classes, the school held some classes in a common area that doubled as a cafeteria and home to the Before-and-After-School Program.
Young kids have little reputation for mealtime tidiness, so holding P.E. classes in a room where 500 elementary school children had just eaten lunch created quite the job for school custodians. Twice a day, custodians previously rolled up their sleeves and got to work mopping the floor to accommodate the transitions.
“Every day, you’d have five people scurrying around in here, mopping, trying to get the room ready,” Heffner said.
Neither the old gym nor the community room were large enough to comfortably fit some P.E. lessons in the older grades—especially activities requiring mass movement, like running or roller skating.
“Can you imagine 30 sixth graders roller skating in here?” Heffner said, shaking her head.
Over in the new gym, P.E. teacher Tiffany Fishman echoed Heffner.
“I can’t wait until we do roller skating,” Fishman said, standing in the huge new gym space. The large gym has improved classroom management, too, Fishman said, since the kids have room to participate in activities at the same time, without having to wait turns.
“More kids can be involved, and it’s safer,” she said.
When Penn Elementary was built in 1961, the City of North Liberty’s population was only around 300. The recent Special Census confirmed today’s population at over 18,000.
In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau listed North Liberty as the second-fastest growing city in Iowa, and a young city at that. Eleven percent of the city’s residents were under five years old in 2010; double the statewide percentage of that age range.
To keep up with that record growth, new schools have been added in the northern part of the district, including Van Allen Elementary in 2005, North Central Junior High in 2006 and Garner Elementary in 2010. Still under construction, Liberty High School is slated to open in 2017 and Christine Grant Elementary will open in 2019, both just outside North Liberty on Dubuque Street.
But the growth has not been addressed strictly by building new facilities. Penn Elementary has seen seven expansions so far.
Penn’s new school capacity is 587 and currently serves 572 students. Heffner said they will probably need to open the portable classrooms again before Grant Elementary opens.
But for now, the addition makes a big difference in many aspects of the educational day, she said. From the large changes like a new gym and media center, to the small changes like fresh paint and new cabinets, everything has made the school a more comfortable, learning-conducive place for all in the Penn Panther family; maybe even enough to elicit a big, collective roar.