Terry Arneson was part of the teaching staff at Van Buren Elementary School the year it opened in 1969—the same year as the Woodstock music festival, and the year astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of Apollo 11 and walked man’s first steps on the moon.
Arneson taught 32 years at Van Buren, the first school in Janesville to have an open-concept layout and pod-style classes that intermingled students of different ages in small clusters.
Arneson and a few of her former Van Buren colleagues, now retired from teaching, walked the school’s halls and viewed collections of historical photos and newspaper clippings that staff and students had set up to show off the school’s 50-year anniversary during an open house Thursday afternoon.
Arneson pointed to a 1987 Gazette newspaper photo that showed three elementary school-age boys singing a song to their fathers on Dads Day at Van Buren. Arneson pointed to one of the boys in the photo. She didn’t even need to read the caption to remember his name.
“Oh, look! That’s little Anthony Palumbo! He was always so creative!” Arneson said.
Around Arneson and her colleagues, the hallways at Van Buren buzzed with activity as students and their parents filed through the school on the city’s south side.
The hallways were decorated with new student artwork, annual class photos that gave their eras away by the varying hairstyles and glasses frames the kids and teachers were wearing. The Van Buren Eagle mascot was suited up and doling out high fives.
Jennifer Olmstead, a Van Buren student in the mid-1970s, was excitedly showing Van Buren Principal Stephanie Pajerski a photo she brought of a memory Olmstead has held dear her whole life.
The photo is of a dress made from brightly colored patchwork quilt squares students hand painted with flowers, balloons, hearts, kites and flags. Olmstead’s teacher, who she simply called “Miss Gressman,” used the students’ decorated quilt pieces to sew a dress. Olmstead said Miss Gressman wore the dress to school.
“She wore the dress. It was in all the papers. Janesville, Milwaukee, Green Bay,” Olmstead said. “It’s one of the best memories of my whole life, something I’ll remember forever. Miss Gressman also had a bright green VW Bug. I remember that, too.”
As school staff assembled with families in the gymnasium, one family that had three generations pass through Van Buren had the honor of cutting a ceremonial 50-year ribbon with huge scissors borrowed from the city’s chamber of commerce.
One group of students, the Van Buren Robotic Eagles (the school’s robotics club), held court in a room with a display of bots they built. Club member Jadon Upham didn’t have time to give an interview. He handed off a newspaper clipping showing his photo, who he is and what he does at school.
He was too busy showing a group of grandparents a wheeled robot he built that revs up, rolls forward and slams down a large front wheel, which then propels the machine backward.
Upham is among students who have begun to take Van Buren into the future, technically speaking. He would know, though, if he perused the hallways Wednesday, that his school has always been futuristically inclined.
It was one of the first schools in the area, and the first in Janesville, to be designed for pod learning. In 1969, pod-style classes were experimental and implemented the idea to group small batches of students of different ages together for intensive, hands-on learning and even roundtable discussions.
Teachers were in charge of setting up the groups, and they were free to rearrange them as needed.
The schools superintendent at the time, Fred Holt, called the learning environment “an open-area type of education that we didn’t think possible.”
Van Buren still has some grade levels that learn in pods, but after renovations in the last few decades, the school has gradually adopted a more typical classroom structure.
Retired Van Buren teacher Mary Farberg helped open Van Buren in 1969 and remembers walking into the school on boards because the school campus was new enough that fresh grass hadn’t yet taken root.
The school in 1969 was 50,000 square feet and cost $914,000 to build. The original enrollment was 613 students between kindergarten and sixth grade, according to Gazette archives.
Farberg said Van Buren was seen as being ahead of its time. The teachers quickly got used to the huge, wide-open rooms and clusters of students of different ages spread from wall to wall.
“Your only separations were cupboards and free-standing bulletin boards,” Farberg said. “You’d think the kids would all have been distracted, but it worked. We just scheduled similar subjects at the same time, and it was amazing how well it worked having a school set up that way.”
Artwork and student photographs on the walls showed one very telling change of the passage of times: that of the kids’ names.
Van Buren Student names from 1987 included Jason, Jill, Heather and Megan.
Now, some 2019 Van Buren student names: Dallas, Nova, Brooklyn and Braelyn.
But perhaps the coolest of all teacher names—and this one is for the ages— has to belong to current Van Buren first grade teacher Ms. McCool.