Brenten Lafond blows the horn at the new playground at the Menekaunee Early Sunrise Learning Center in Marinette. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Brenten Lafond blows the horn at the new playground at the Menekaunee Early Sunrise Learning Center in Marinette. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
MENEKAUNEE - The start of a school year generally doesn't rise to the excitement level of the football season. But there is an exception this year with the opening of the Menekaunee Sunrise Early Learning Center. The former elementary school on the city's east side has undergone a summer-long facelift and is ready to open its doors Sept. 3 to hundreds of children from DK through 5K.

Leading the all-star team of teachers into the scholastic season is principal Justine Braatz. She's spent months drawing up all the Xs and Os, which has included everything from books, bus schedules and building blocks to plumbing, painting and the parking lot. Teachers, custodians, support staff and volunteers all came together to make a dream a reality.

"I'm impressed. I never thought it would look like it does," said kindergarten teacher Holly Jersey. "It's a little overwhelming for everyone at this point because it's crunch time and we're trying to get everything done but it's exciting."

Two of the key crunchers are custodian Ken Lesperance and former maintenance man Dave Kleutz.

"I can't say enough about Dave," said Braatz. "He's a retired maintenance/cleaning staff member as of June 30. He's donated hours and days of his summer to help with painting. I would say he's there four days a week. He comes about 7 or 7:30 a.m. after his walk and he stays until noon or one o'clock every single day."

Lesperance also takes the "sunrise" name literally since he's usually there from sun-up until sundown.

"They've been long days but it's become a labor of love, it really has," he said. "We installed all the cabinetry, all the cubbies - which is a kindergarten and pre-k term for locker room - we cleaned and painted the whole building, remodeled it. It was a pretty good building to start with, so it wasn't that hard."

Lesperance said he usually has one word running around in his head at the end of the day when he looks back to see what's been accomplished, "Wow!"

What wasn't paid for with tax dollars was made possible through generous contributions. The school has received some $150,000 in donations, much of which was spent for new playground equipment. Visitors to the open house this week will also notice new signs, and an enlarged and lighted parking lot.

While those amenities are fun and nice and add an element of safety, the real reason for school is to teach children. Jersey takes that responsibility very seriously. She's been helping mold young minds in Marinette for 20 years, 10 of which have been dedicated strictly to kindergartners.

"Times have changed a lot. I remember going to kindergarten when it was, tie your shoes, eat your snack and go home," she said. "But kindergartners are actually moving onto reading. We've kind of taken over what the first-grade classrooms used to be. By the time they head to first grade they are on their way to reading and doing math, addition and subtraction and writing."

While the school is equipped with all the technical bells and whistles, you will still find chalkboards in use. You will also find teachers who remind students about manners and who know how to make learning a fun and enjoyable experience.

"I think it's neat to be able to walk into the building and see everything for the little kids. I think they're going to think it's pretty cool," said Jersey.

This year Jersey will be team teaching, which means she and another teacher will share 30 students, which is a 15:1 ratio.

"That will be a little different but I'm excited about that," she said.

What's most exciting for teachers, parents and students alike, is that the entire school is geared toward just the very youngest of students. They are all from DK to 5K and don't have to mix with any of the older kids. This is a learning center designed, built and staffed just for them.
Special to the EagleHerald

MENEKAUNEE - The opening of our new early learning center is almost here. What started out as a brainstorm idea amongst our administrative team has developed into a wonderful educational beginning for our youngest students. When the final decision came from our school board to go ahead with this idea we were elated and knew that this was what was best for the children and families of our district.

With very little time on our hands, a plan was put in place to transform the old Menekaunee Elementary School, one of the buildings our district decided to close many years ago, into an early learning center. We toured the building and marveled at what great shape it was still in and how perfect it would be for the start of a little one's educational journey. The challenge was on to transform what was once a neighborhood school into a learning center just for four and five year olds.

So, with the collaborative help from our administrative team and our school board's consent, Menekaunee Sunrise Early Learning Center became more than just an idea. This was not going to happen without an army of helping hands and community support. The building was in great shape but after being closed for ten years and used for storage, we had our work cut out for us. Fortunately, when word got out that this was our plan, it took very little time for the help to come our way.

The first group to step forward was a group of former Menekaunee teachers, who still meet regularly for breakfast, and after hearing of this decision to reopen their beloved school, decided they wanted to do something to help. From here the floodgates opened and the steady flow of community support has not stopped. Donations of all kinds and from all walks of life came to our doorstep, literally. Individuals, businesses, families, church groups, neighbors, and more, have contributed and been more than generous. We could not have been ready to open this fall without all of their help, so we are extremely appreciative.

This also could not have been accomplished without the help of district staff. Endless time and energy came from the maintenance department who transformed it into a state of the art high-tech building fit for little ones. Dedicated teachers and librarians spent their summer creating an inviting, bright and colorful learning environment designed specifically for our youngest students. Each day an army of people were at the building making it a great place for learning and I look forward to our goal of working together to make Menekaunee Sunrise a wonderful start of an educational journey.

It is truly amazing to be a part of something so positive for the district. I find this out on a daily basis when numerous visitors stop by to see the progress and can't thank us enough for following through with this project, whether it's opening this building or developing a learning center. It has been a true team collaborative effort everyone should be very proud of. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to lead Menekaunee Sunrise Early Learning Center.
Braatz is the principal of the Menekaunee Sunrise Early Learning Center.