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OAK CREEK - More than 500 freshmen will start off their high school career in Oak Creek High School's brand-new ninth grade center when school starts in September.  

The new center will add 192,000 square feet of learning space to the high school campus, alleviating overcrowding issues and providing a space just for freshmen.  

Rather than a new school, the ninth grade center is designed to be an extension of the high school, according to Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District's Superintendent Tim Culver. 

"The board's intent is not to have a separate school, but for this to be a program at the high school, a campus," explained Culver. "It's connected, but it's designed to be a seamless experience for high school kids." 

A space just for freshmen

Having these separate spaces will allow for instruction at the center to specifically target the needs of high school freshmen, something that other schools have already done. 

"The ninth grade academy model is not something that's unique to us," said Chris Weiss, ninth grade principal. "There's a lot of research that underpins the unique needs of ninth graders, who sometimes transition hard to the high school … This was an opportunity to put some of those practices in place. It's going to be a really good thing for our community." 

The high school had already started putting some new practices into place last year, like piloting the idea of FLATs, a group of teachers that would teach a specific group of students.  

With the FLAT system at the new center, all students will be assigned to a specific "teacher team." The team of teachers will be able to get to know the students quicker, be able to apply data from the middle school to the new group of students, and have a common planning time so they can plan together. 

The system should allow for teachers to more quickly customize their teaching for their specific group of students.

New learning spaces

Students will also have opportunities to collaborate and personalize their own learning in the building. 

"Throughout the building, you'll see a lot of collaborative spaces; you'll see a lot of flexible seating; and you're going to see a lot of wise use of technology and creative use of technology," Weiss said. 

The ninth grade center will be filled with new, different kinds of chairs, so that students can pick the set-up that works best for them.  

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A number of collaborative learning spaces are also set up throughout the school, so students can work together. These spaces are also integrated with new technology, like screens that can easily be hooked up to Chromebooks the students already have so they can show others what they're working on or work on projects together.

Two buildings, one school

In addition to these spaces, the building also has its own gym, cafeteria, offices and library, so, for the most part, students shouldn't have to do much traveling between the two high school buildings.  

However, for the students who do have to travel, like those who might be taking advanced classes, there will be a covered walkway between the two buildings. The walkway will also have heating installed under the sidewalk to prevent ice from forming during cold Wisconsin winters. 

The walkway was one of the final pieces to be built, because VJS Construction Services couldn't start that portion until school was out because it required closing the road between the two schools.

Open this fall

The building will be ready "on time and under budget," according to the superintendent.  

Construction officially began on the project in January 2016, following the demolition of the city hall and library that used to be on the site.  

The building was budgeted for $39 million, which was approved in a referendum in the fall of 2014.  

Now that the project is nearly finished, the district is starting to prepare for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and community open house 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21 where everyone will be able to stop by and see the new facility.  

Culver, who has seen the ninth grade academy model work at other districts, is excited for how the new model will make learning in the district even better. 

"I just hope that we build on the great tradition of Oak Creek and make it better," Culver said. "I've seen more kids in ninth grade with more credits, better grades, and then they're ready to launch. I'm looking forward to seeing that happen here."

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