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St. Cloud’s new Tech High School opens with big labs, big tech and an eye toward the future

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A sign reads "learning studio."
The design of St. Cloud’s new $104.5 million Tech High School campus is changing how teachers are preparing students for the workforce. At Tech, traditional classrooms are called learning studios.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Students and visitors entering St. Cloud's new Tech High School building are met with open spaces and natural light — a stark contrast to the crowded corridors of its century-old brick predecessor.

The design of the new $104.5 million high school, which opened this fall on the city’s south side, is also changing how teachers are preparing students for the workforce.

There are no industrial arts classes hidden down dark corridors here: Career and technical education courses are given a place of prominence on the new 1,600-student high school campus. 

"We're trying to prepare our students for all sorts of options for when they leave us when they graduate, and to prepare our students to meet the needs of this community’s workforce,” said Laurie Putnam, who oversees the St. Cloud district’s two high schools as assistant superintendent for secondary education. “Because we know that that's how St. Cloud and the greater St. Cloud area remains vibrant and strong."

Integrated into the school’s design is the district’s new program — Exploring Potential Interests and Careers, or EPIC. Beginning their freshman year, students explore different potential career paths, then take courses that prepare them for real-world jobs after high school. 

The classrooms where students develop skills for those careers are more like labs: big, open spaces filled with work tables and equipment. Large windows allow other students passing by to see what’s happening inside.

"The visibility is great advertising, so students are aware that this is what they're doing, this is what they're working on because the students are in here working on it every day,” said technology instructor Matt Keil.

The labs are aimed at creating a pipeline for students to move directly to technical colleges and four-year schools for careers as engineers or technicians, Keil said. And, if needed, the flexible lab space can change to fit whatever electives students are most interested in.

"If more students are taking automotives and we need to run seven automotive classes out of here, we can do that,” he said. “If we need to run seven robotics classes out of here, we can do that."

Woven throughout the new building is the school district's new career-based approach. In a two-story fabrication space — the “fab lab” — students use computer-aided drafting to design a solution to a problem, then actually build it themselves in an adjacent workshop.

But it’s not all about engineering and robotics. In a lab filled with industry-standard kitchen equipment, students listened as a certified chef talked about safe food preparation. Hospital beds lined the wall of another lab where students can take nursing or biomedical classes.

Tech High School's innovative design is getting statewide attention. Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, who toured the school last week at a public open house, praised the idea of letting career and technical interests take center stage — and offering literal windows into learning — so younger students can see what their older peers are working on.

"It creates that anticipation, and it creates that natural excitement that students get to keep tapping into their curiosity, and then keep pursuing an interest,” Ricker said.

The school’s administrators say Tech isn't only about preparing students for technical careers. They still teach classic subjects like English and math. Students more interested in art, music or theater can pursue their passions, too.

But even those classes might be a little more high-tech than in the past — like an 800-seat auditorium that allows students to not only be on stage but to get hands-on experience in audio-visual production and set design.

In a choir room sound-engineered for vocal music, the director can record students and automatically play it back so they can adjust their performance in real time.

Even the land surrounding the school is incorporated into student learning. The building sits on 69 acres of forest, prairie and wetlands, which will serve as an outdoor classroom for biology students.

Most of all, Putnam says Tech High School is designed to evolve, as student needs and workforce demand change. 

"We just don't know what education looks like in 10 or 20 years,” she said. “But this space lets us be ready."