Collaboration, technology, and enhanced security highlight North Lebanon School District’s new $55 million elementary school.

Three large-spaced collaboration areas – two housed within big rooms and the third called Learning Stairs – will open “a world of possibilities” to students, according to district superintendent Gary Messinger. NLSD is starting the new school year about one week later than most districts in Lebanon County to ensure the building was completed on time. 

“The advantage to a space like this is, you can have multiple classes from a grade level working in a space like this, one,” said Messinger. “Two, for teachers who really like to do hands-on activities. … There’s not always space to do those things in the classroom, but some kids learn better when they have the ability to actually make things, to actually get up and touch things, feel things.”

Messinger used the differences in learning about measurements in the classroom versus doing so in a collaboration space as an example. 

“It’s one thing to measure a line on a piece of paper, but it’s a whole other thing to take them on a scavenger hunt and bring them down here and ask them, ‘What’s the measurement of a tile on the floor? Do it in inches, do it in centimeters, whatever,’” said Messinger. “These collaboration spaces, we can have multiple kids in different grade levels, we can have across grade levels… They’re called collaboration spaces and they are meant for student collaboration.”

The three collaboration spaces feature their own technology, added Messinger. Although some of the technology is still to be installed, the spaces will enhance student learning. The technology is interactive as students can learn by using either their hands or touchscreen pens on the large monitors. 

An interactive touchscreen inside a STEM classroom at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)
A large group collaboration room at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)
A smartboard TV inside a general classroom at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)

“Each one of them has – or will have – smartboard TVs,” said Messinger. “I can assign if I am a teacher, a group of eight students to work here and tell them you are going to work on a project to present to the class or the entire grade level while this group is working over here and another group is working over there. So, that opens a whole world of possibilities, whether you are talking about science, math, whatever. This opens a whole world of possibilities, which is hard to accomplish, in just that small classroom setting.”

The Learning Stairs, located on the first floor, look, at first glance, like a set of gymnasium bleachers that just happen to be placed along an open space in the main hallway down from the front entrance. 

The Learning Stairs at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. This large group gathering space can fit approximately 190 students. (Will Trostel)

“This is actually designed for an entire grade level to get in,” said Messinger. “You talk about the power of six or seven teachers working with kids. Whether it is them just sitting here in small groups and discussing or it’s a formal presentation, we have the ability to project and utilize this for presentations, to utilize it for guest speakers. Nowadays, there are a lot of mobile field trips that can be brought in and this is a space they can easily do that.”

Messinger said some of the four prior district elementary school buildings had very little space to move about let alone present collaboration opportunities. The district has sold the four old elementary school buildings and merged students from those facilities into one on the same campus as the middle and high schools in Bethel Township near Fredericksburg. 

Read More: Northern Lebanon School District sells four elementary buildings for $9 million

“One of the things from an instructional standpoint that’s incredibly important is for grade levels to be able to work together,” added Messinger. “So when you think about the design of this building, all of our third-grade classrooms are in this wing. All our third-grade teachers will now have time to have their planning time together at the same time every day.” 

Those collaborative learning opportunities extend beyond the interior of the two-story, 189,808-square-foot building.

“In addition to the inside spaces, we also have outside areas, learning areas for kids,” said Messinger. “There will be a pollination garden that our kids will have an opportunity to work on, there’s two courtyard areas. Sometimes, there’s meaning to going outside, but again, opportunities for classes to work together.”

One of two recess playgrounds at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)
One of two recess playgrounds at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)

An added bonus is for students who are learning at a certain pace to be put together so that they can receive similar instruction from the same teacher.   

“That opens up a world of possibilities,” noted Messinger. “If I have three kids in my class that are maybe struggling a little bit and you have three kids that are struggling, why don’t we put them together – because they are all located in the same spot – and I’ll take your kids that are struggling and I will give you three of my really high kids because they need enrichment. Teachers can pull and gear their (classroom) instructions to where they are to meet the individual needs of those students.”

Messenger said there was never an opportunity to cater to the individual needs of groups of students who were learning at different levels at a school like Lickdale Elementary since, in the case of that building, there was only one class in certain grade levels. 

At the new campus, each grade level will have six or seven classrooms per grade with the ability to increase to eight if necessary.

The vast openness of the new building, from the hallways to the media center (library), and the coordinated color schemes and relevant words written on the walls around the building were done purposefully.

The Media Center at Northern Lebanon Elementary School overlooks the school’s entrance. (Will Trostel)
The Media Center/library at Northern Lebanon Elementary School includes two classroom-style instruction areas. (Will Trostel)

“Basically, you can follow the colored lines (on the floor). We have an elementary school that contains visual colors, something that’s visually attractive with words everywhere,” said Messinger. “I will tell you that it was very intentional. The colors actually have a representation of something.”

Bright colored lines run throughout the school. (Will Trostel)

A thin bluish line is for kindergarten students to follow throughout the building, green is for 1st-2nd grades, yellow is designated for grades 3-4, red is for 5th-6th grades, and the large blue line, which can be followed by all students, leads to exits and common areas within the building. 

Colors, however, extend well beyond those that are painted on the floors.

A rainbow of color permeates throughout the building and, in some cases, coordinates with the colors designated for a given grade level. For example, the bricks in the hallway walls leading to the 3rd- and 4th-grade classrooms in their designated wings on the first and second floors are also painted in a bright yellow hue.

Bright colors also burst from the furniture, carpeted areas, and in the windows in the Media Center where some of the window panes are shaded in either blue or yellow, the school district’s official colors.

The Media Center includes two areas of learning, which are similar to the collaborative spaces but also remind you of a classroom setting since tables and chairs fill those specific areas. 

A large group collaboration room at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)

Although it has two learning areas and a laid-back vibe with exposed HVAC equipment and modern-day furniture scattered around the room, the Media Center still has some “old-school” representation to it.

Breakout furniture in the collaboration room at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)

“We do believe that elementary kids still – we still need to get books into their hands,” said Messinger while simultaneously pulling a book off one of the shelves. “And maybe actually reading content that’s not on a computer.”

The Media Center/library at Northern Lebanon Elementary School features some bare shelfs, but that will change soon. (Will Trostel)

The Media Center’s large space permits a teacher to bring their students to do, among other things, research for a specific project. “A teacher has the ability to bring their class up here, introduce the project here, and tell them to go find the materials to support whatever subject they are discussing,” said Messinger. 

The goal was to create a space where “kids want to come,” added Messinger. 

“Whether they want to just come sit and read a book because that’s something they should be doing, you want them to fall in love with that or come do other things – especially with our older students. They should be doing research, they should be learning how to use a library to get materials. That’s something we’re now able to do and something we weren’t able to do in the past,” added Messinger.

The school also has another new feature – two STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) classrooms. 

STEM classroom at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)

“Something that we tinkered with in the past but now have the ability to do is our new offering in STEM,” said Messinger. “Kids will come here once a week and are set up so we can do coding, robotics, architectural things. We even have room for projects to be stored while students are working on them.” 

There is excitement in the air among staff and administrators to be able to offer this new service to the approximately 1,1000 students who will attend school there starting next week.

From left to right: Lauren Bruce, Human Resources/Community Relations; Charles Herling, Elementary Assistant Principal; Lee Umberger, Elementary Principal; Gary Messinger, Superintendent; and Kirk Cless, Technology Director/ Systems Analyst. (Will Trostel)

“This is completely new for us. We had some STEM materials and we touched on it, but now this is going to be a once-a-week, K-to-6 experience for all of them,” said Messinger.

The arts are well represented at the new elementary school. The building has two music and two art rooms for students to nurture their creative talents. 

An art classroom at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)

The cafeteria, with three serving lines designed to deliver lunch to students in about two hours’ time, and a full-sized gymnasium are both situated in the middle of the building and separated by two partitioned stages.  

“They are installing partitions so that we can have simultaneous presentations on either side of the stage as needed,” said Messinger, who also noted the school’s gym is as large as the one in the high school. 

While the building is a modern-day architectural marvel and many accolades came from the approximate 1,000 guests who toured it during a recent Open House, it is the building’s security system that Messinger believes is of the greatest concern to parents. 

Cameras cover nearly every inch of the building, both inside and out and a security vestibule – a feature none of the old schools had – prevents a bad actor from gaining access to the school beyond the front doors. 

“The pass-through window allows a parent to drop off their child’s lunch without getting into the building,” said Messinger. “Even after someone is admitted past the security vestibule, they still can’t get access to the school without being granted permission.”

Hall passes inside a classroom at Northern Lebanon Elementary School. (Will Trostel)

Modern technology also allows staff to instantaneously notify the school’s full-time police officer, local Emergency Management Services personnel and the Pennsylvania State Police, the latter being able to respond within minutes after being notified. “No one wants to dial 911 in an emergency situation because we all know that seconds matter in those kinds of situations,” added Messinger.

As far as naming the new building, that’s the last thing that’s been on Messinger’s mind. His focus is getting the new facility open for business on Tuesday, the first day of school for all district students who are not attending classes at the Career and Technology Center in Lebanon.

“No name at this point, so we went with Northern Lebanon Elementary School. No one has really thrown out a name for it, but if they ever do, it will be after I am no longer here. I’ll still be here in the area, but it will be after I have retired,” said Messinger, with a smile and a chuckle.

Another Open House with self-guided tours will be held to showcase the building to the public on Tuesday, Sept. 12 from 5-7 p.m. 

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...