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‘We wanted to build a bridge’: New Gene Dillon Elementary aims to ease the transition to junior high and beyond

Ami Aalgaard, principal of the new Gene Dillon Elementary, explains some of the features of the campus and grounds on Wednesday. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 3
The newly constructed Gene Dillon Elementary School is set to open for the the 2018-19 school year. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 3
Crews put final touches on the new Gene Dillon Elementary School on Wednesday in preparation for the new school year. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 3 / 3

BEMIDJI -- Delphinus, Ursa Minor, Pegasus, Cygnus.

They’re constellations, but also the namesake for “houses” at Gene Dillon Elementary, Bemidji Area Schools’ new high-tech school for fourth- and fifth-graders that staff hope will help students transition from younger grades into middle school and beyond.

The houses are designed to resemble the school-within-a-school “pods” at Bemidji Middle School. Each house contains four classrooms split into two pairs. Each pair has one science and math classroom and another for language arts and social studies. Students will start the day in one classroom, then bounce between it and the other room in the pair, with breaks in between for recess, physical education and so on.

“They'll still be in their homeroom family, if you will,” said Ami Aalgaard, the school’s principal. “And then they'll get used to their house family, then they'll get used to their wing, get used to their grade level, and then they'll get used to their building.”

It’s an arrangement designed to help students who’ve learned in self-contained elementary classes acclimate to multi-room schedules in intimidatingly large middle and high schools.

“We wanted to build a bridge,” Aalgaard explained.

Each student will have a locker in their homeroom, which means they’ll need to plan ahead a little and bring the supplies they need for their next class like they will in older grades.

Every two houses are anchored by a science, technology, engineering, art, and math room, where kids can, say, fabricate fishing lures for a science project or learn to code.

Gene Dillon will have one Chromebook for every two students there, plus a large “Promethean” board -- think “70-inch tablet” -- anchored to the wall in each classroom next to more traditional whiteboards.

The school will house about 860 students this year, a number that includes all of the district’s fourth- and fifth-graders, plus some districtwide special education programming.

And the building itself is nearly ready for students. Workers were adding grippy sections to stairs, tiling the cafeteria, unpacking dozens and dozens of Chromebooks, and hauling electric pianos into the school’s music rooms Wednesday. Staff plan to receive a certificate of occupancy this week, after which they won’t need to wear hard hats and high-visibility jackets inside the school’s otherwise-finished offices and classrooms.

Teachers are scheduled to start moving in Friday and early next week -- one is bringing a drone in the school’s blue and gray color scheme -- as they get ready for a gauntlet of orientations before the first day of school on Sept. 4.

Bemidji area voters approved a $39 million bonding referendum in 2014, about $30 million of which was intended for the new school. It’s named after longtime school board member Gene Dillon, who retired from the board in 2012 and died about two months before the referendum vote.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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