There's the lingering tang of fresh paint as well as lots of hammering and drilling and sweeping, but the new, $72 million dollar Oltman Middle School still is an impressive facility.

“It’s definitely got that ‘wow’ factor when you walk in,” math teacher Willie Taylor said.

Design features include an extended canopy at the main entrance. It functions as a shelter from rain and snow, which means parents more space to drop off their kids without jockeying for the nearest spot to the main entrance. 

Erin and Jim Fettig took their daughter Emma to see the school last week. Emma, who is starting the 7th grade, previously attended the old Oltman Middle School, whose main structure is 67 years old, in St. Paul Park.  Jim Fettig served on School District 833’s Long Range Facilities Task Force, who helped vet plans for boundary changes and new school buildings.

“I was excited for how excited our daughter was when she saw the space,” Erin Fettig said. “I’m glad she got the experience in th grade so she has an appreciation for a new school. It’s Christmas morning for her.”

The building was designed by ARY Architects, who also designed East Ridge High School. Architect Paul Youngquist said they devised the spaces for maximum flexibility and adaptation. Classrooms are outfitted with glass folding doors that open up onto collaborative learning spaces. Teachers and students have the option of accessing these spaces during class. 

"You have to have a building that’s isn’t just a series of classroom after classroom," Youngquist said. "It has to be a building where teachers can work with students in different types of environments, different types of sizes of groups."

In case of an emergency, the school has a remote lockdown system. At the push of a button in the principal's office, panels will drop from the ceiling to seal off the pods from the main corridor and from each other. But students will still be able to access exit doors, Younquist said. 

The fire alarms are installed in the ceiling so a trespasser or assailant can't use them to confuse or misdirect the students, Younquist said. Should they hear the alarm bells - and they will hear them, he said - students will know it's the real thing.

The design of the school's media center was partly inspired by a space at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.  Youngquist said he was impressed with the furnishings and power sources and other features at the airport that allowed travelers to create their own personal spaces where they could be productive.

"It's a place to get things done," he said.

One particularly intriguing feature: All teachers will wear microphones that are wirelessly connected to speakers in the ceiling. Principal Jodi Hagebock said it will ensure that every student hears what the teacher is saying no matter where they are in the room. And by using their normal voice, teachers can relate better to students. 

"We've all had to use our 'teacher voice,'" she said, demonstrating by raising hers to an authoritative, directing-traffic volume. "It puts stress on the teacher."

The common locker areas are close to the bathrooms and water fountains to allow for quicker access. Students have just four minutes between bells to find their next class.

Students who get flustered spinning a combination lock can instead use a scan card to open their locker.

“It allows students who may have some type of a difference to feel included,” Hagebock said.

The school was built as part of the district’s long-range facilities plan, which is intended to address enrollment growth and building needs over the next 10 years. It was also intended to replace the old Oltman Middle School. That school is being converted to the new Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School.