BY ELIZABETH HAYES —
Atwater Elementary School will celebrate its 100th anniversary in September 2015, turning an age no school in Shorewood has ever reached before. As the oldest school in the village, Atwater’s history plays an important role in the community’s past, present and future.
The year is 1848. Mechanicsville, Wisconsin is graced with their first day of school, a log cabin located at the corner of present-day Capitol Drive and Oakland Avenue. This community school suffered two fires in 1864 and 1895, and was rebuilt once in 1896.
In 1900, the village was renamed East Milwaukee, and eight years later, a sturdier, four-room elementary school was built to accommodate for the increased population of the new community. Located on Murray Avenue (present day Village Hall), this new elementary school served its academic purpose for six years, until the village’s rising population required yet another expansion.
Then, in 1913, East Milwaukee’s school board purchased a seven-acre plot on Atwater Road, beginning the construction of a school that continues to educate students 100 years later. Atwater School’s front half was completed in 1915, and on September 7 of that year, the new building opened its 11 classrooms to nearly 200 eager students.
By 1917, the people of East Milwaukee decided to rename their village Shorewood, a name which seemed most appropriate to the area’s environment.
With the population still growing, Atwater built an additional eight classrooms and a dual auditorium-gymnasium, completing construction of this project in 1919. Because Shorewood was without a high school, students in grades 9-12 attended Riverside, where their tuition was paid for by the village. However, this system was temporary. Two years later, high school students were added to Atwater’s student body, remaining there until the high school was built in 1925.
So how can we connect to a school built so long ago? John Stanco, 5th grade teacher at Atwater for 29 years, said there are several advantages to working in a 100 year old school.
“The old building has a lot of culture to it … I like that,” Stanco said.
Looking at pictures taken immediately after its construction, one can see how little Atwater’s structure has changed in its years; two pillars still frame the stairs to the main entrance and the music room curves towards the right hand side. This building has aged but not changed.
Another advantage, despite its age, is the structure’s durability. Because it has lasted so long, Kayla Russick, Atwater principal, trusts its sturdiness.
“I don’t want this to happen, but I think we could withstand a tornado, the building is built so well,” Russick said.
Nevertheless, both Stanco and Russick agree that the building needs work.
“Some of the sinks around here are so plugged up they don’t drain very fast … so that’s kind of a pain,” Stanco said. Russick agrees with Stanco’s points.
“It’s an old building, so there’s always something to repair,” Russick said. This keeps the custodial staff busy, always having challenges to work through or improvements to make. Regardless, Russick takes a positive spin.
“They’re nice challenges to have,” Russick said.
And of course, one of the best benefits of the old building is its structure.
“We could make a really good scary movie,” Russick said.
Although the school has a century under its belt, Atwater is moving towards modernization with projectors, desktop computers and activboards in each room. Stanco, who began his teaching career in 1986, says there were no classroom phones back then, which made communication between teachers extremely difficult. He regarded the push towards electronics as a positive one.
“I’m a big technology geek, so I love that we’re increasing our technology use and access here,” Stanco said.
As a new addition to the gadget collection, Atwater is introducing Chromebooks to its staff and students this year. With these new additions, Stanco hoped for a fair amount of student computers, which would ensure that each child is fully equipped with the resources they need.
“[I hope we will get a] one-to-one ratio,” Stanco said.
With a current focus on personalized learning, Atwater intends to create an academic environment that reaches all students.
“I feel that one of our missions is to do the best we can to make sure there are wonderful, well-adjusted adults who can be here after we’re gone,” Russick said.
For Russick, academic success at a young age is vital for the future, beyond Atwater and the Shorewood community.
Plans are just getting in order for next year’s celebration, but Russick anticipates many fun events for the school. A committee of staff and community members is partnering with the Historical Society to create a memorable anniversary.
Continuing into the future, Atwater has a backbone of community support, historic stature and academic purpose that will guide the school into great possibilities.
“[The focus is] to retain that sense of history and the past, but … to maintain academic excellence that teaches to the whole child,” Russick said.