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East County Wednesday, Sep. 30, 2020 1 year ago

Willis Elementary teachers love new space

Addition provides six new classrooms for Lakewood Ranch elementary school.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Coming into this school year, Laurie Rahn, a second grade teacher at Robert E. Willis Elementary School, knew she wanted to decorate her classroom in a nautical theme.

She thought that was going to work well with the sea-foam-colored walls in the brand new addition that was added to the school.

Now students enjoy reading in the boat she created named the S.S. Rahn. 

Second graders Aubri Darpino and Ella Baas are socially distant while working on assignments. The desks have casters, which allow teachers to easily move them so students can collaborate while also being safe.

Students, teachers and staff members at Willis Elementary said they love the new addition that has six 900-square-foot classrooms. The second grade has been assigned to the addition.

“The building is absolutely beautiful,” Rahn said.

The addition replaces three portables and increases the school’s capacity to 828 students from 720. The school’s current enrollment is 690 students.

Principal Kathy Price said the extra space will help as East County continues to grow in population. The addition has allowed the school to add a voluntary pre-K program this year.

“We’re fortunate,” Price said. “I know this was a priority of the [School District of Manatee County] to make sure the building was in place for the start of the year and was something that had been worked on for a couple years. With the continuing growth out east, it is needed.”

This year, 64% of the school’s 690 students are at school full time, 2% are signed up with hybrid learning, and 34% of students are at home doing e-learning.

Rahn said the sea foam color that’s spread throughout the addition is calming to students and teachers.

Courtni Darpino, a student support specialist at the school, has a second grader, Aubri, who loves being in the addition because of the colors.

“She thinks she’s going to the beach,” Darpino said. “She thinks she’s the big kid on campus because they’re being trusted being in that building.”

The addition also came with new furniture, such as flexible seating and desks resting on casters that make them easily moveable, which allows for collaboration among students. Classrooms have new cabinets and storage as well as a bathroom in each room.

Teachers love the amount of bookshelves and storage they have in the new classrooms.

Although Rahn is an e-learning teacher this year, she wanted to decorate her classroom, so she could teach virtually from the school rather than at home. The addition has been equipped with new technology including a 75-inch Samsung TV.

“I have had amazing support from our IT department here and amazing luck using Microsoft Teams through Schoology,” Rahn said.

With the technology in the classroom, Rahn is able to see her 20 students in gallery view on a large screen rather than just on her computer, as well as use other features. For example, while teaching a lesson on solids, liquids and gases, Rahn is able to share her screen with the students at home and show them a lesson on her computer while also being able to see what her students are doing.

“To me, it makes it almost as good as being there with the fact you feel a lot closer to them because Microsoft has now enabled schools to have a large gallery view,” Rahn said.

Outside the addition, there is an area fenced off that Price said is a blank slate, and teachers can come up with different ways to utilize the space, such as with a butterfly garden.

Students currently use the space to put down towels or blankets in the grass area to spend time reading.

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