Johnson High School renovations wrapping up with finished touches

Marjorie Otto/Review • A 6,200 square-foot-expansion, along with roofing and plumbing work, began in 2016 at Johnson High School. The expansion, seen on the east side of the school building facing Arcade Street, includes a new entrance, new administrative offices and five new classrooms.

The renovation work, as requested by Johnson students, included a drop-test room, where students can test their engineering projects by dropping them out windows into an area off the entrance of the school. The room is no bigger than a closet.

The new entrance makes the school more secure as visitors must check in with a security officer. Before the creation for the new entrance, visitors were often able to get upstairs without checking in with staff. At some point an airplane will be hung in the entrance of the school.

Johnson High School is the first building in the St. Paul Public School district to have gender-neutral bathrooms. Each toilet is private but students share an open hand-washing area. Johnson students worked with architects to help design the bathrooms.

Two years and $15.9 million later, the construction at Johnson High School is just about finished.

The school building, which opened in 1963, underwent internal and external renovations to bring the more-than half-century-old building up to date.

Work included updating the boiler system, replacing the roof, adding new classrooms and administrative offices, interior renovations and replacing the plumbing, which had not happened since the building was built.

The 6,200-square-foot addition to the building includes a new entrance that is handicap accessible and also more secure — in the past there were problems with people being able to get in and get upstairs without checking in with any staff.

“The flow in-and-out of the building is much nicer,” said Johnson High School Principal Micheal Thompson during a recent tour of the school.

The addition also includes administrative offices and five new classrooms. The work also made it so other spaces in the school could be converted into three additional classrooms.

Support and counseling services now have their own offices and more room to operate.

“Basically we’re just kind of catching up,” Thompson said. “We literally had people in closets [for] offices.”

He said now that counseling and social work staff are located in a central area, students will now have an easier time finding them when they need help.


Gender neutral


As a part of the renovations, Johnson High School is the first building in the St. Paul Public School system to have gender-neutral bathrooms. Johnson students helped design them with architects, and the school’s restrooms, which are now all gender neutral, are now located on each corner of the school.

Since 2015, St. Paul Public Schools has had a policy allowing for transgender students and staff to use whichever restroom or locker room aligns with the gender they identify with.

District spokesperson Toya Stewart Downey said the bathroom model installed at Johnson High School will eventually be used across the district as renovations are made, but will happen slowly, taking a decade or more. 

Each toilet is private and the hand washing area is open, which makes it easier for staff to make sure students are behaving.

Thompson said the gender-neutral bathrooms have been in use for over a year now and there have been few issues.

The bathroom and plumbing renovations were much needed, he said, as there were often problems with toilets clogging and taking a long time to fix. “The bathrooms were in terrible shape,” he said.


Drop everything

In addition to students giving their input on the bathrooms, they had an additional request: a drop-test room. As hinted by the name, it’s a room in which students can drop items constructed in class, to test what happens.

Johnson is a part of the aerospace and engineering magnet path that students begin at the two Farnsworth campuses, which are also located on the East Side. The programming includes a lot of hands-on engineering projects, so the request fit right in. 

The room is no bigger than a closet, but has windows that open into the entrance of the school. “Isn’t it cool?” Thompson laughed.

During the tour, it was unclear who was more excited — the students or Thompson — but the room isn’t quite ready to be used. Safety bars need to be added before students can start practicing their engineering skills.

All that’s left of the renovation work are some finishing touches, including installing trim pieces on the outside of the building, completing some cosmetic work inside, and setting up some new technology in classrooms.

There were plans to install an ultra-light airplane in the school’s new lobby, but the plane the district had lined up for donation was just a bit too long to fit in the space. The district is continuing to look for a smaller plane to hang inside the school.

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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