Intimate gathering marks official groundbreaking for Merrimac school’s expansion
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Intimate gathering marks official groundbreaking for Merrimac school’s expansion

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Although work has already started on the addition at Merrimac Community Charter School, an official turning-of-the-earth event was held at the north end of the expansion project on Wednesday, May 13.

The intimate gathering looked much like other groundbreaking events of the past with ceremonial shovels thrust into a mound of dirt, but individuals donning the recommended facial masks and practicing social distancing was a telltale sign it was a celebration done pandemic-style.

Former Sauk Prairie School District Superintendent Dr. Cliff Thompson provided background on the school’s past 25-30 years. Thompson served as the school’s principal before it became a charter school.

The school hit a turning point in the early 2000s when low student enrollment meant the possibility of the school’s closure. Instead, a group of stakeholders rallied around the school and began to embrace the idea of becoming a charter. Thompson said the school’s longtime lead teacher, Sid Malek, along with a few others, took on the challenge and “beautifully brought everyone together.”

Merrimac Elementary School became Merrimac Community Charter School, emphasizing multi-age classrooms, a project-based curriculum focusing on the environment and partnering with local resident experts for expanded learning opportunities. The school’s governance council partnered with the Sauk Prairie School Board to make the charter school a reality.

Since the 1990s, the school’s student enrollment has tripled.

Thompson said all of that has led to the day’s events. “It is an honor to be able to celebrate what was and what we are,” Thompson said. “The best is yet to come.”

Noting the district was only able to invite a handful of people to the event, Sauk Prairie School District Superintendent Jeff Wright shared his gratitude for the community’s support of the near $65 million referendum on the April 7 election ballot – held a few weeks into the state’s Safer at Home order.

“I am grateful the referendum passed by almost 21%” Wright said. “Considering the circumstances of the moment; to have that outpouring of support for schools, students and families of the district has been absolutely amazing.”

Wright said while most of the referendum dollars will be spent on the rehabilitation and expansion of the high school, “several million” will be spent on Merrimac Community Charter School.

“We are standing in what will be four new classrooms to the north of the building,” Wright said. “As you know it is very much needed.”

The need for the additional classrooms is due to the school’s growing student base and the age of the building, among other factors, such as the district’s decision to offer four-year-old kindergarten at Merrimac. Currently, 4K classes are taught in a church basement adjacent to the school.

The project will also include adding another set of student restrooms; the school has only one restroom serving nearly 150 students. What’s more, Merrimac’s (under available) multipurpose space serves a gym, cafeteria and event space for any large student gatherings. The south side of the building where the school’s hallmark community garden was until recently will be turned into a full-size gym for both student and community use. A new kitchen is also among the additions. The community garden has been relocated within the school grounds. Wright said all of these projects will allow all Merrimac students under one roof again.

Site work was able to start early since students have been absent from the building since mid-March. Wright said it will ensure the school will be open for the first day of school in the fall.

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