Owatonna’s New School Sets Eyes on Local Pathways

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Building a new school can take years. Agreeing to can take decades. In Owatonna, Minnesota, there had been frustrated failed attempts and dreams of passing bond referenda for a new Owatonna Public Schools high school since the late ’80s. 

Fortunately, in late 2019, that changed. District Superintendent Jeff Elstad partnered with Wold Architects and Engineers (Wold) to lead a series of community design sessions to get at the heart of what a new high school could mean for Owatonna. Alongside Wold partner Sal Bagley, they sought to get alignment on “why are we building a high school?” and “what are our community/workforce needs?” Eventually, they arrived at building a high school that focuses on community pathways and, critically, meeting the demand of local employers (trades and manufacturing).

“After the early 2019 vote fell just short, I spent some time getting to know the no-voters, listening to their concerns. You know, depending on the community, referenda often has to say no first to get to yes,” said Superintendent Elstad. 

First, the District and Wold conducted research and determined that career pathways needed to be a core focus in the community. Even before the pandemic there was a huge gap between the local employer demand and the number of high school graduates who were prepared to fill the roles. Using this as a north star, the leaders assembled a community task force consisting of ~25 members and multiple high school students to vote on whether a new high school would be most likely to satisfy this need. 

Once that decision had been made, a core planning group was assembled. This team helped design the building and consisted of predominantly school staff and both high school and middle school students who got the opportunity to design their prospective high school. Community and faculty listening sessions were critical in shaping the design of the new school. With the support of local foundations, they were even able to build a community meeting space for after-hours and weekend usage by the greater Owatonna community. 

Pathways through Partnerships

Regardless of the referenda, this school could not have been built without business partnerships. After the bond passed, an additional $26 Million was donated from local business partners, making it one of the largest gifts a public school has received and paving the way for community pathways and recognition. Federated Insurance, headquartered in Owatonna, donated $20 million plus the land for the new high school. The Lehner Corporation donated furniture and equipment to the school’s music space. The Mayo Clinic donated nursing equipment to support the nursing program. As of the 23/24 school year, there are 85 students in pursuit of nursing degrees as high school students.

Part of the pathways program is student internships, coupled with 40 hour mentorship programs. Before graduation, each student has at least two internship opportunities at Owatonna High School and these programs support career pathways toward nursing, culinary arts, digital fabrication, science and engineering, publishing and digital content creation. 

“Currently, we have a great relationship with Federated Insurance,” said Brian Coleman, Owatonna Career Pathways Navigator. “They provide internship opportunities in both the fall and spring semesters.  The positions range from Life Operations, Custodian, Print Center/Stockroom, Policy Assembly, Business Coordination Center, IT, Customer Accounts and Accounting.”

The district also has a growing exploratory middle school design. All 8th-grade students take a semester-long course called College and Career Readiness which meets for 82 minutes every other day. In this class, students take an interest inventory, explore post-secondary options, and work with Junior Achievement presenters on career readiness. 

Through innovative partnerships and career awareness models, Owatonna is setting an example for what it looks like to build a school that serves the community’s student needs, economic needs and future. 

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