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With MacBooks and rooftop classrooms, Olathe West High School ready to open

Tour of Olathe West High School

Staff and students at Olathe West High School give a tour of the new building as finishing touches were being placed in preparation for its opening on the first day of school.
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Staff and students at Olathe West High School give a tour of the new building as finishing touches were being placed in preparation for its opening on the first day of school.

When Sydney Bui starts high school at the brand new Olathe West building on Wednesday, the 14-year-old freshman will need to use schedules displayed on big black screens to find out which classroom, lab or open space she should be in that day.

Will her Green Tech Academy classmates — who chose to participate in a school-within-a-school dedicated to the study of energy conservation and sustainability — be meeting in a rooftop horticulture classroom? Or will her English and history teacher be combining their classes in a blended-learning classroom for a particular classroom?

Should she spend a newly extended lunch break following up with a teacher about a lesson, working out in a brand-new exercise room or using one of the school’s many “makers spaces” to work on a project?

Olathe’s fifth high school opens its doors to schoolchildren for the first time Wednesday, and 900 freshmen, sophomores and juniors who will make up the school’s inaugural class will settle into a $82 million building built to emulate the feel of a start-up workplace or college campus.

A senior class will be added to the school next year, when the a varsity football team debuts.

“We want students to feel like they are in more of a work environment than just at school.” said assistant principal Josh Umphrey earlier this month. “We are trying to make it more collegial than maybe the average school in order to make the expectations higher.”

As members of Olathe West’s inaugural class, the “original Owls,” Bui and her classmates are also the first high schoolers to be issued MacBook Air laptops as part of the Olathe school district’s burgeoning one-to-one technology initiative. All Olathe high school students will be issued laptops by the end of the year.

The new school will also play host to the district’s newest additions to its 21st Century Academy initiative and debut focused programs of study in Green Tech and Public Safety, where students interested in a career in law enforcement and firefighting will be instructed by Captain Steve Hill, of the Olathe Fire Department. The students will eventually gain certifications that will allow them to work in those fields after high school.

Bui, who does not live in the Olathe West attendance area but can go to the school as a member of the Green Tech Academy, said she was excited to start high school in a building with not just its own horticulture classroom and greenhouse but with spaces where she can work on projects and presentations that will make up much of her school work.

Most of her classes, as well as the people she would need to go to for support such teachers, counselors and other administrative staff, are located in a wing that hosts a freshmen learning community. Similar wings, complete with open-concept classrooms, flexible furniture and smaller conference rooms, are dedicated to other grade levels.

The school site also includes four media support centers set aside as a go-to space for each grade level to research and study.

“All of these classrooms are designed to help us get involved in hands-on learning,” Bui said.

That’s a mantra that will help guide curriculum that is more focused on learning through hands-on projects, preparing high school students for the workforce and developing skills that kids might use in college or the real world, like hosting a conference, collaborating on an initiative or making a presentation, school officials said..

Like a small college campus, Olathe West’s building contains open spaces, small meeting areas and abundance of outlets to support the various technology used by students and staff.

“Twenty years ago the teacher was the smartest person in the room,” said Principal Jay Novacek, who pointed out that a technological world in which kids can answer questions with a click of a button has let to calls for a different way of approaching instruction. “We really felt like it was time for us to find a new way to engage kids.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen