'Starting a new dynasty': Waukee community looks forward to building new high school's legacy

Sarah Kay LeBlanc
Des Moines Register

When Caleb Burke steps foot inside Northwest High School Tuesday, it will be his first time he enters a high school as a student and the building's first time welcoming students for active learning.

He's not sure he's ready, but he figures he's as prepared as anyone can be for the big day.

It's a bit more than a first day, though, for the 1,300 students who will pass through the $140 million building's front doors Tuesday morning. For teachers and students, their first few weeks at Northwest High are an opportunity to craft the beginnings of the school's story.

Math teacher Jay Winter doesn't have many expectations — he's going in with the idea that he'll be writing on a clean slate. Hopes, though? He has a lot of those.

He hopes the school will create a community over the course of the first year. And he hopes that students find a way to make the school theirs — and that he can support them in any way he's able.

More:Here's what you need to know about Waukee's new Northwest High School

"They’re going to be creating history," he said. "The first football game, the first golf meet, the first Quizbowl match ... it’s all going to be part of something that is going to be as good a story as has been offered at Waukee High School."

For the last seven years, Winter taught math at Waukee High. When he was given the option to transfer to Northwest, he took it, looking forward to working out of a new space.

From a teaching standpoint, Winter said he doesn't expect much will change. Northwest does have more technology, like screens in hallways, overhead projectors in classrooms and a massive screen in the cafeteria area for information and announcements — all of which might come with a slight learning curve, he said. 

One thing he is looking forward to is the planning areas built into the layout of the school for teachers to gather and collaborate. The spaces, which will have cubicles for at least 20 staff members each, will provide teachers with a place to go during non-class periods to grade and help each other.

Those spaces will be "exceptionally beneficial," Winter said.

A common area is seen at the new Waukee Northwest High School on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Waukee, IA.

Along the hallways, there are also areas with tables and couches for students to chat with each other and work together. Teamwork is a theme across the building, with many classrooms set up with desks pushed together and several open classrooms available for any teacher or student use. And it's something 15-year-old Burke appreciates.

"It’s very cool," he said. "It feels like it’s been designed in a way that’s not just supposed to be a school but an environment that encourages collaboration and community."

There's only one thing Winter said could be a bit of an obstacle to the year: More than a year of learning amid a pandemic — with many students having been remote — and now the move to the new building splitting up friend groups could all have a significant effect on students' acclimation to the new space, he said.

"On top of that, it’s a brand new school, where things are going to go wrong in the first year — it’s going to happen," he said. "How we get around that and how we navigate that together with grace and kindness is going to be everything."

More:Photos: A sneak peek into Waukee's new Northwest High School that opens for students

The main gym is seen at the new Waukee Northwest High School on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Waukee, IA.

Brady Grisham, who will be a junior at Northwest this year, will be transitioning to the new school from Waukee High — a move he says he's not too heartbroken about. He'll miss the friends he's leaving behind, but as an athlete, he's excited to try out the state-of-the-art gym and other facilities.

"It's very fun, starting a new dynasty with this school," he said.

Grisham has already been on Northwest's new baseball fields this summer, but he also plays basketball, football and runs track. With a few coaches coming over from Waukee, he said he was actually looking forward to moving into the new building.

"It's truly huge and it's amazing," he said. "I do think we've taken a step up from Waukee High."

He's also looking forward to having a bit more space to stretch out. Waukee High School has held about 2,300 students the past few years and was likely not designed for that capacity, the district's Chief Operating Officer Kirk Johnson has said.

More:'We're Wolves now': How Waukee, Waukee Northwest are preparing for football after split

Northwest will relieve both schools of that burden, splitting students based on boundary lines and where they went for middle school.

"Last year, we had 2,000 kids in the building and, now cutting it down to like 1,000, it should be really nice," Grisham said. "Having less people in classes is better because teachers can have more one-on-one with you or they can help you a little bit better."

An Art room is seen at the new Waukee Northwest High School on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Waukee, IA.

German teacher Stephanie Dana Ely, in her first year of teaching, said she hopes the smaller class sizes lead to a closer-knit community. As she decorated her classroom last week, she said she's looking forward to putting her own stamp on her space and watching students make the building their own.

"So many times, you come into a space and somebody’s already set something up for you or things are less flexible, but right now, we’re all working together to really make it what we think is best for our students, which is really exciting."

Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or sleblanc@registermedia.com. Follower her on Twitter at @sarahkayleblanc