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What's Popping at Waltham

For more than 10 years, the Waltham Elementary School District in North Utica, Illinois, dreamed of having one building for all their K-8 students who had been spread among two outdated elementary schools. Serving a student population of fewer than 250, the project goal was never to redesign how education environments are used. Instead, the objective was much simpler: to ensure this small, rural countryside town near Starved Rock State Park could remain viable.  

However, nearly four years after the new Waltham School opened its doors in 2019, redesigning education is precisely what this district has done – not just in terms of space, but in the ways in which education at Waltham is being delivered.

Flexibility Under One Roof


For Kathy Schultz, a K-8 STEAM teacher, combining schools under one roof has been a game-changer. As the art teacher for all K-8 students, she split her time between both North and South campuses, traveling back and forth.

Kathy Schultz, Waltham K-8 Art teacher

“Was it doable? Yes, because we did it for years,” says Schultz, “but to have everything you own in one spot instead of saying ‘oh I should have carried those templates with me to this campus.’ There is really no comparison.”

Schultz is not alone. Dan Gustafson, who teaches math to grades 5-8, worked in Waltham’s North campus for a year before transitioning to the district’s South campus to teach junior high math. He recalls the challenges of keeping the kids engaged, particularly during the hotter days of fall and spring, and having to creatively come up with ways to make their spaces more flexible and usable.

Dan Gustafson, Waltham 5-8 mathematics teacher

“Coming [to the new school has] been night and day,” says Gustafson. “Every single day you are finding new and different ways to be able to use things in the classroom. It’s never the same from day to day.”

He says there has been an increase in student achievement as well, but even more so in other essential student-learning areas.

“Behavior and attendance issues have declined because the kids are excited to come here,” says Gustafson. "They are proud of their school.”

Waltham eighth graders Hayden Pode and Reece Doerr

Operating (Walls) Like Never Before


One of the favorite facets of the new space among both faculty and students is operable walls. A feature throughout the instructional spaces, the moving walls can be opened or closed for maximum flexibility of the space. And opening the walls has opened endless possibilities.

For kindergarten teacher Karin Kummer, the operable walls have allowed her to better meet her students’ academic needs.

“If I have a student who’s reading well above kindergarten-level we can open part of our wall and during center time, I can have kids go over to first grade for reading and pop into that group,” says Kummer. “If first grade has some [kids who]need a little support, they can come back down and I can reteach, so we can share kids easily through that wall.”

The operable walls are student approved as well. “I like the opening walls and the ability to combine classrooms if you need it for more space,” says seventh grader John Sowers. “At the beginning of the year for social studies and language arts, we used to have that as one class, so they would open the wall and we would have more room.”

Waltham seventh graders Addi Schweickert and John Sowers

Making Things POP


The operable walls have also led to a transformational collaboration between art and STEM. Now a team-teach approach, the newly formed STEAM team is working on projects they have never done before, including growing, harvesting, and marketing their own popcorn.

“This is something Jim McCabe, our school board president, has wanted to do for a long time,” says Schultz. “But by myself? I said ‘Jim, I can’t really do all this – this isn’t really art.’”

But with K-8 STEM teacher Brittany Culjan by her side, the newly formed co-teaching team gave it a try.

“We started with it being an art project that they had to design labels,” says Schultz. “Then they designed the shellers to clean the popcorn off. And now here we are – headed to Chicago to present our popcorn at the Illinois Association of School Boards Joint Annual Conference.”

The seventh-grade popcorn project is so popular that the farm has become a schoolwide project that the STEAM team hopes to expand with a hot house and more.

The collaboration has led to a number of innovations and new class projects, including designing pipelines and building birdhouses. “I don’t how you could have done that kind of a project with one teacher,” says Kummer, whose son also attends Waltham. “But now you have those teachers working together and you can do so many more things.”

Schultz says this innovative collaboration would not have been possible before, especially with both shared staff members traveling back and forth between campuses.

One Big Happy Family


Kindergarten teacher Karin Kummer with Waltham students.

Coming together as one school has provided a greater sense of community and connection throughout Waltham. Not only are the staff no longer divided or traveling between campuses, but neither are families with multiple K-8 students. Staff have noticed the impact It has made on students being able to see their siblings in the same building. They also have noticed the impact on their connection to the students.

“Being able to see the kids through eighth grade is just my favorite part,” says Kummer. “I feel like I have a much better relationship with our junior high kids because I’m here with them every day.”

Before, it would take a lot of advanced planning to do a multigrade event. With the new school combining K-8, seeing engagement among grades is commonplace. It’s not unusual to see eighth graders assisting kindergartners during Game Day or leading activities during Play Day.

“It’s pretty fun to have the younger kids here,” says Waltham eighth grader Hayden Pode. “This year, we made a fun day for them because they didn’t get a field trip.”

“The older kids have taken on more of a leadership role because they know they are in the building with those younger kids,” says Gustafson. “They are seeing each other in the hallway and engaging. I think it also gives those younger kids more people to look up to.”

To build on this multigrade engagement and mentoring the new building has facilitated, the school has also instituted Tribe Time, a weekly opportunity for students to choose a teacher-led special interest study and work with students and teachers throughout the building.

“We are all one big happy family,” says Gustafson. “We all work together. It’s just a common trust within our building.”

Schultz agrees and thinks the possibilities for Waltham are now endless.

“I just think we’ll get bigger and have more opportunities,” says Schultz. “Even though we are a small community, and our enrollment is just at 200, there is no ceiling. If someone comes up with an idea, our superintendent is going to help us make it happen if it helps kids.”

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