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Johnna Graff will not miss the gibbon.

She’s moved to a new space in the same neighborhood, farther away from her (very) loud neighbor, a place with new, fully equipped science labs and classrooms, a multi-purpose room and bathrooms with hot running water.

And on this first day of school, she and other teachers in the Lincoln Public Schools Science Focus Program welcomed students outside the doors of their new home — just past the small crowd of kids and stroller-pushing parents waiting for the Lincoln Children’s Zoo to open.

The 25 freshmen and a few upperclassmen new to the program, bearing name tags and backpacks and maybe a few well-hidden first-day-of-school jitters, spilled out of buses and into the new 15,000-square-foot building on a sultry Monday morning.

They joined thousands of other LPS students from kindergarten through ninth grade heading back to school. The high school sophomores, juniors and seniors start Tuesday.

But these students have something nobody else does this year: a new school building replacing the two well-worn portables and classrooms inside the zoo’s Camelot Commons that have served the district’s oldest focus program for the past 22 years.

Since the so-called “zoo school” opened, the district has begun other focus programs, including the longtime Arts and Humanities Program and, in more recent years, The Career Academy, a partnership with Southeast Community College.

The district also defines Northeast’s Junior ROTC Program and Lincoln High’s International Baccalaureate Program as focus programs — and any future programs may resemble them more than the others.

Earlier this year, a district task force concluded any future focus programs — those with a specific curricular focus attended by students for a portion of the day — should be embedded into existing high schools and not at separate locations.

The task force concluded that would increase participation by eliminating transportation and other logistical challenges for students having to get from one place to another during the school day. 

More than 1,000 students now participate in those programs, with the largest number — 690 — at The Career Academy.

The renovated science focus program could accommodate up to 150 students, though Principal Kurt Glathar said expansion will be gradual, because officials want to maintain the small, close community that has been a trademark of the school.

This year, 93 students will attend the zoo school, which will remain amid the tigers and giraffes, the red pandas and the camels.

That’s a good thing, as far as senior Bella Salem is concerned. Salem, who helped the zoo school’s freshmen familiarize themselves with their new school Monday, has spent her last three years in the program because she likes, well, everything.

“Getting close to your teachers, meeting new people (not attending your home high school), doing research — that’s a really big part of why I’ve stayed. I want to do that professionally,” she said.

The new building has advantages: not having to walk outside to get to the bathroom (one previously shared with young zoo visitors who sometimes peeked under the stall doors until being whisked away by their moms), and having students all in one place.

“I think it will be different, but in a better way,” she said.

Because it’s new, things are still getting figured out, and students had to squeeze around construction workers doing some finishing work near the office Monday morning.

The teachers didn’t get into the new building and its three 1,100-square-foot labs and four classrooms to begin setting up until mid-July, but they're really liking the new labs. 

"To be able to start at ground zero and build a lab — that was pretty great,” said science teacher Emily Rose Seifferlein, one of five teachers in the focus program. 

The new, $3.2 million building is part of a $16 million renovation at the Children’s Zoo that’s still in progress, and the students spent a part of their morning Monday visiting the rainforest and giraffes and tigers as part of a scavenger hunt to help them get to know their surroundings.

Lily Anderson, a junior who has attended zoo school for three years but has been around it since her dad started teaching there 11 years ago, said despite the new equipment and new opportunities the renovated space will offer, she’s a little sad that the old stomping grounds — and the history built around it — are gone.

Because the community created at the school, where teachers have a connection with students that often lasts long after graduation, is the real beauty of it, she said.

“If you’re zoo school now, you’re zoo school forever,” she said.

Back to school photos

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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