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Construction begins on new Cooper Elementary School

Cooper Principal Aaron Lieberz, along with students from Cooper Elementary School break ground for the new school on Wednesday morning in Superior. Jed Carlson /

Towering piles of dirt and heavy machinery served as the backdrop for Wednesday's groundbreaking ceremony at Cooper Elementary School.

Seven students — covering every grade from kindergarten to fifth — hefted the first shovels of dirt at the event.

One student wore his billowing construction vest backwards and another kept a hand on her hard hat to prevent it from toppling, but all seven beamed when they stood on the site of their future school.

"When we started talking about groundbreaking, my belief was it's all about the kids," said Janna Stevens, Superior school district administrator. "This isn't about the adults who are designing the building, building the building, and making sure all this happens; this is about our beautiful kids having a place to learn and grow.

"I think it's essential that they're a part of that process."

In the classroom, teachers have made an effort to tie lessons to the new construction whenever possible. Stories about trucks have become a staple in kindergarten classes. Older students receive periodic updates about the work being done and how everything will coalesce for the opening of the new school in fall 2018.

At the same time, some distraction is unavoidable, said Aaron Lieberz, Cooper Elementary School principal.

Work at Cooper began with site preparation in December, but the school grounds had been quiet until recently. Now that work has resumed, student interest is divided between classroom lessons and the construction outside.

"They want to look out the window and see the big equipment — that's the biggest challenge," Lieberz said. "But our teachers do a great job keeping them focused."

Lieberz added the temporary distractions are a fair tradeoff for the promise of a better learning environment in the future.

Since opening in 1970, Cooper Elementary School has faced difficulties. The school's open classroom design creates noise issues, and its sprawling footprint leads to increased energy loss.

The site also has significant drainage issues, which buildings and grounds director Gary Niemi pointed out Wednesday.

"You can see the top of the (new) foundation, so you can see it's considerably higher," he said. "It will be very nice. We won't be living in the mud like we are here."

The existing school has been described as "sinking" in the area's natural clay soil, but that problem will be avoided with the new building. The site for the new school was built up with layers of sand to minimize settling that may occur.

Niemi is also happy to bid farewell to Cooper's aging roof.

"We've been going on a wing and a prayer on the Cooper roof for a while," he said. "We've kept it limping along, (but) this one has seen its time."

The new roof should last 30 to 50 years, according to Niemi.

Fall 2018 is the target date for the opening of the new two-story school, and Stevens said the construction crew is on pace to meet that deadline.

"It feels so good to know we're ahead of schedule, and right now, all of our projects are slightly under budget," Stevens said. "Really, everything has gone so smoothly."

The outside shell of the new building is expected to be finished by fall 2017. Work on the interior will take place during the winter months, and the old building will be demolished following the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year.

In May, Cooper plans to hold an event for the public to take a virtual tour of the new building based upon designs. Stevens said images will be shown on monitors, but there will also be a set of goggles for a true virtual reality experience.

Further details about the event will be released in the coming months.

"This school has meant so much to this area, and we really want that to continue," Lieberz said. "A big part of a school is being open and accessible to the community, and this space will just make that much easier."

Favorite feature?

There is much to like about the design of the new Cooper building, but both Niemi and Lieberz are in agreement on what stands out to them.

"The big feature is the community events area," Lieberz said. "It's a large cafeteria that can also double as an auditorium. I think the community members here will really appreciate that because currently we have to hold concerts in the gymnasium, and it's quite small and quite cramped."

The gymnasium also doubles as the cafeteria at Cooper, which creates an additional set of headaches for Niemi and his staff.

"I know my building engineers and custodians will love the fact they don't have to have 15 minutes to turn a gymnasium into a cafeteria and then turn it back," Niemi said. "That's just a horrendous task every single day."

Niemi also approves of the new two-floor design that will shrink the building's footprint and increase energy efficiency.

From an aesthetic point of view, Lieberz sees the two-floor layout as a significant upgrade.

"There's a 'bridge' that goes across from one wing to another, and it goes right across the gym and the cafeteria space," Lieberz said. "That's pretty neat. That's going to be an impressive feature."

Students who took part in Wednesday's groundbreaking ceremony were selected in a drawing. They were entered into the pool for exemplifying the values of Cooper Elementary School.

"We've been running a (program) having kids recognized for doing wonderful things and doing what Cooper stands for — being respectful, hard-working kids," Lieberz said. "We've got a big list of kids, and they were all entered into the drawing."