The Messmer St. Rose Elementary School in Milwaukee’s Merrill Park neighborhood got a pretty special 125th birthday gift, as construction wraps up late this summer on a four-year, $6.5 million renovation project.

Messmer staff say they view the project as a fulfillment of the mission the school system assumed when it agreed to take over St. Rose and St. Leo Schools, then known as the Catholic Urban Academies, from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2007. Messmer now serves more than 400 students in grades K4-8 at its St. Rose Campus on North 31st Street, in addition to 400 students at Messmer St. Mary in Riverwest and nearly 700 students at Messmer High School on Capitol Drive.

Acknowledging that the Merrill Park neighborhood faces challenges in terms of poverty and violence, Messmer vice president for advancement Mike Brauer said that it is imperative that Messmer St. Rose students are able to learn in a building that is safe, clean and up-to-date.

So in 2014, the school’s board of directors, along with Messmer President Jim Piatt, decided to confront the physical problems with the building, which at that time was well past 100 years old. “The building was solid in structure, but it was tired,” said Brauer. “The feeling was, either we’re going to do this, or we’re not. We can’t do it partway.”

A fundraising effort was kicked off by a $100,000 gift from the Lakeview Foundation and sustained by support from corporations, foundations, and the broader community, including St. Rose alumni.

“There’s really a commitment of investing in these children at this site in a meaningful way. We feel like we’re stewards, and this is a stewardship conversation,” said Brauer. “This building and this mission is being entrusted to us and we really feel like these students are owed a healthy environment in which to learn.”

The campaign’s goal is a little more than $6.5 million, of which $5.6 million has been raised as of Aug. 1. Initial improvements included a replacement of the building’s roof, enhancements to its classroom and corridor lighting, as well as a hefty remodeling of its lower level, which saw the expansion of the school literacy center. Space has also been designated for future STEM classrooms. Additionally, a new elevator was installed and other accessibility features were added.

The project also included a number of safety upgrades. The location of the school office was changed to create a more secure entrance and a fence was installed around the building’s perimeter.

This summer saw the completion of the project’s final phase, a $2 million overhaul of the building’s boiler, and the addition of new ventilation and air conditioning that will increase the school’s capability for year-round learning programs.

When Messmer agreed to take on responsibility for the St. Rose and St. Leo schools in 2007, said Brauer, it added a new dimension to the whole organization’s goal: provide a quality learning environment for students years before they even enter Messmer High School, hoping that by the time they graduate from the system, their educations will be that much better.

“We loved the idea that we would be in a position to carry the Messmer mission through a K-12 continuum: two sites, both serving North Side, Central city populations,” said Brauer. “Our kids are coming out of the toughest zip codes in town. We can’t imagine what they’re bringing with them into the room, so if we can control things on our end, it gives us a chance to minimize those distractions: it’s too hot, it’s too cold, poor lighting, bad air.

“It’s hard to take these kids and keep them attentive; we need an environment that will be conducive to that.”

There are more renovations on the horizon for other Messmer buildings; the board has given preliminary approval for at least $1.4 million in renovations to the high school’s swimming pool, installed in 1926. “Once we secure funding, we intend to fill in the pool, and create a Student Productivity Center (classroom and dedicated lab space) to support our growing S.T.E.M. program,” said Brauer.