Price Laboratory School

Year Constructed: 

Exterior photo of the Price Lab School building

Even before the end of World War II, officials of the Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) understood that the institution needed a new facility to house its laboratory school.  The building now known as Sabin Hall had served as the home for campus laboratory school activities since 1914.  It was still structurally sound, but it was no longer the model of public school arrangement and organization that a laboratory school should exemplify.  In 1945 the General Assembly approved $905,000 to be used for capital improvements at the Teachers College.  That sum was considered adequate to construct a new laboratory school, a health services facility, an arts and industries building, and several physical plant improvements.  The new laboratory school, budgeted at about $400,000, would include a grade school, a high school, and nursery school facilities.  It would be a two story building with two wings joined at a central section.  It would include a gymnasium, library, cafeteria, and pool.  It would be located on the north edge of campus in an area bounded by Hudson Road on the west, 23rd Street on the south, Campus Street on the east, and 19th Street on the north.

Architectural sketch of Price Laboratory School

But postwar inflation, construction supply shortages, and surging enrollment, especially of men returning to school under the GI Bill, delayed action on most of these projects.  In January 1947, President Malcolm Price asked the General Assembly for an additional $2 million for new campus buildings.  The General Assembly responded with an appropriation of $362,000.  In January 1948, President Price stated that plans were underway for a new school building with a budget of $560,000.  By July 1948, the plans were substantially complete.  In October 1948, the college completed purchase of the land on which the school would be built.  In May 1949, the General Assembly appropriated an additional $500,000 for the project, bringing the total to $1.724 million.  This additional money would allow the construction of the high school wing as the second unit of the project.  A gymnasium would be the third unit.  The college hoped to accept bids on construction of the elementary school wing in the fall of 1949.

The Board of Education (now the Board of Regents) did not approve the final plans until May 1950.  Tinsley, Higgins, and Lighter of Des Moines were the architects.  In July 1950, Viggo Jensen Company of Albert Lea, Minnesota, received the general contract, Cedar Rapids Electric Company received the electrical contract, and W. A. Peck Company of Des Moines received the heating and plumbing contract for unit one construction.  The project budget was $920,000.  The elementary school wing would offer classrooms designed for student teaching observation, a cafeteria, an auditorium, and a library.

Construction got underway in the early fall of 1950, but it did not go smoothly.  The contractor encountered a high water table when he attempted to put in the foundation for the building and construction necessarily halted. The footings and foundation had to be redesigned at considerable expense and substantial delay.  Lawsuits followed, with contractors ultimately accepting a settlement of about $100,000 in June 1951 for losses suffered during delays caused by soil testing and redesign work.  The project sat idle for nine months.

Steel framing for Price Laboratory School

After the matter was settled, construction got back on track.  College officials hoped that the elementary wing would be ready for the fall of 1953.  On October 30, 1952, the cornerstone for the new building was laid.  It contained documents, newspapers, photographs, statements of school philosophy, school schedules, student teaching guides, and other material relating to the school and its programs.  The elementary school was completed in the summer of 1953.  Summer session students began their move from the old school in Sabin Hall to the new building on August 10.  Students moved class by class, followed by Principal Jack Hall and Director Dwight Curtis.

Exterior photo of Price Laboratory School high school building under construction

By the summer of 1953, the total appropriation for the high school wing reached $550,000.  Though the Board of Education had not yet approved final plans, President Maucker hoped that the Board would take action so that bids could be sought soon.  He hoped that unit two could be completed by September 1955.  But it was not until February 1954 that the Board of Education awarded contracts for the work.  Fildes Construction Company of Waterloo received the general contract,  Young Plumbing and Heating of Waterloo received the plumbing and heating contract, and Hub Electric Company of Waterloo received the electrical contract.

Exterior photo of the original fieldhouse for the Price Laboratory School

By July 1954, the steel frame for the high school was in place.  Construction proceeded on schedule, despite the insolvency of one of the contractors, so that by August 1955, high school students and faculty were packing to move from Sabin Hall to start the fall in their new building.

In their 1956 session, the General Assembly appropriated $517,000 to build unit three of the campus laboratory school.  This unit would be a fieldhouse with a broad range of physical education facilities.  Construction got underway during the summer of 1956. The fieldhouse was completed in time for the start of school in September 1957.

Headshot of former UNI President Malcolm Poyer PriceThe new building complex on the northwest corner of campus, completed in the fall of 1957 at a total cost of about $2.5 million, was initially known simply as the Laboratory School.  However, in February 1959, President Maucker announced that the complex would be named in honor of Malcolm Price, who had been president of the college from 1940 through 1950.

President Price had been instrumental in securing funding and then in the initial planning for the school.  After resigning as president, he had continued to serve on the faculty of the Department of Education.  Professor Price said of the honor, "It came as a complete surprise; I feel honored.  The facilities of the school are essential to the professional education of teachers and give the college a greater opportunity to be of service to the state of Iowa."  John Emens, President of Ball State Teachers College, gave the dedicatory address.Individual speaking at a podium at Price Laboratory School dedication ceremony

The Price Laboratory School was a model physical facility when it opened.  But the programs within the building were just as important.  In 1960, Dwight Curtis, director of the school, stated that the program of the school attempted to perform two major functions:  to provide the best education to children attending the school and to offer the best laboratory experiences for teachers in training.  One function should not take precedence over the other.  He said that "the optimal educational program and environment for the pupils in the laboratory school provides the best laboratory for the pre-service and in-service education of teachers."  Trying to strike this difficult balance has been a challenge to the school whenever it faced questions about its mission and its relationship with the rest of the university.

On several occasions, notably in 1971, 1986, 1989, 2002, and 2012, the school faced crises in which its continued existence was threatened.  In April 1971, with laboratory schools closing across the United States, the Regents directed UNI to investigate alternate plans for accomplishing the objectives of the Price Laboratory School program.  School Director Ross Nielsen vigorously defended the program.Ross Nelson sitting in a Price Laboratory School classroom

He compared closing the laboratory school with a medical school closing its teaching hospital.  And he said that transferring student teaching to local public schools would be a very costly proposition.  Also, Lieutenant Governor Roger Jepsen, a laboratory school alumnus, defended the school to a committee of the General Assembly.  Ultimately, the committee asked that the laboratory school budget be separated from the university's general operating budget, so that expenses could be tracked better. And they asked the school to negotiate higher tuition payments from Cedar Falls and Waterloo pupils.

The threat in 1986 came as an amendment by Representative Tom Jochum of Dubuque tacked on to a bill very late in the General Assembly session.  This amendment called for closing the school in two years.  Representative Marv Diemer, from Cedar Falls, assured school officials that the matter was not serious and that the amendment would be withdrawn.  Nothing came of this, but situations like this continued to reveal a serious questioning of the laboratory school and its programs.

In 1989, the Board of Regents hired the consultant firm of Peat, Marwick, Main and Company to study the Regents universities, with a special directive to look for unnecessary duplication of programs.  Among other considerations, the company's report questioned the need for Price Laboratory School, at that time one of only about one hundred laboratory schools in the country.  UNI officials reacted with shock and concern.  They pointed out the considerable achievements of the school and the convenience for UNI students working on their student teaching field experiences.  A committee and several outside consultants reported on the strengths of the laboratory school program, and the matter went no further.

Students working together on a project in a Price Laboratory ClassroomAnother serious threat to the continuation of Price Laboratory School came in February 2002, at a time when Iowa and the Regents universities faced a severe budget crisis.  Thomas Switzer, Dean of the College of Education, was reported as proposing the possibility of closing Northern University High School and forming a Professional Development School in association with Cedar Falls and Waterloo High Schools.  In this initial scenario, Northern University High School would close after the 2003-2004 year.  Some considered this proposal to be a confirmed decision.  But school officials such as Provost Aaron Podolefsky said that the proposal was just a possible vision of the future that would require further research and discussion. It was not a fait accompli.  Many NUHS parents were shocked.  They quickly organized to fight the proposed closing by legal means, if necessary. Ultimately, the Board of Regents was obliged to release the following statement in May 2002:  "Due to budget reductions at the University of Northern Iowa, significant changes will occur on the UNI campus, including at Malcolm Price Laboratory School (MPLS).  MPLS will remain open as a K-12 school for the 2002-2003 school year. Negotiations are underway regarding future years."

In August 2002, the operating budget for the school was reduced drastically (from $4.5 million to $2.4 million) for the 2003-2004 school year, and tuition was raised from $200 to $340.  That, apparently, was a price that many laboratory school parents were willing to pay to keep the school in operation.  In October 2002, President Koob approved a recommendation from Interim Dean of the College of Education William Callahan to keep the school open on a K-12 basis.  Dean Callahan proposed a series of tight economy measures including seeking donations, raising fees, and not filling positions left by retiring faculty members.


In 1986 the school auditorium was named in honor of Kenneth G. Butzier, who taught language arts, speech, and theater at Price Laboratory School from 1960 through 1986.  And in 1988 the fieldhouse was named after Ross A. Nielsen, who directed the school from 1954 through 1986.  On June 8, 1993, a very windy day, a fire caused by arson destroyed the Nielsen Fieldhouse and damaged adjacent portions of the school.  No one was injured, but damage was estimated at $3 million.

Firefighters spraying water on the burning Nielsen Fieldhouse

Architects RDG Bussard Dikis of Des Moines designed a new building, which cost about $3 million.  Ground was broken for the new Nielsen Fieldhouse on September 13, 1994.  The structure was completed in 1995 and dedicated on January 12, 1996.

Architectural sketch of new Nielsen Fieldhouse

Over the years, the school underwent minor renovations and structural changes, but, with portions of the building over fifty years old, Price Laboratory School was placed on the university's five year list for capital improvement.  According to long range plans, the existing buildings would undergo major reconstruction or perhaps even demolition and replacement in a project estimated to cost $10-20 million. With continuing austere economic conditions in Iowa, and with the crisis of 2002 still fresh in many people's minds, it was increasingly difficult to see when such a project might begin and what its shape might be.

Teacher sits on the floor with young childrenYet another, and possibly the final threat to the continuation of the laboratory school arose in 2012.  After several years of very restricted university budgets, and with prospects for an even worse budget situation in 2012-2013, President Benjamin Allen recommended a series of program reductions and cuts in mid-February 2012.  Included in that series was a recommendation to close the Malcolm Price Laboratory School by June 30, 2012.  On February 27, 2012, the Board of Regents approved that recommendation in an 8-0 vote.  While there is still a lawsuit pending that seeks to prevent the school from closing, the work of the Malcolm Price Laboratory School may well have reached its conclusion. (NOTE: The school was closed in 2012 and later torn down.)

List of Laboratory School heads with dates of service

Note: The purpose of this short essay is primarily to sketch the history of the Malcolm Price Laboratory School building complex.  It is beyond the scope of this essay to recount, even briefly, the significant achievements and contributions of its students and faculty.  Perhaps it will suffice to say that, over the course of the last fifty-five years, the school has consistently received wide recognition for its research and innovative programs in areas such as the study and teaching of English and other languages, mathematics, history, computers, media, creativity, and environmental education.  Continuing strength in these and other areas developed a loyal and grateful corps of alumni, parents, faculty, and other supporters who helped the school to survive difficult times.

Compiled by Library Assistant Susan Witthoft and volunteer Amy Peterson; edited by University Archivist Gerald L. Peterson, July 1996; substantially revised by Gerald L. Peterson, with research assistance by Janelle Iseminger and scanning by Gail Briddle, January 2004; last updated, June 13, 2014 (GP); photos and citations updated by Graduate Assistant Eliza Mussmann March 29, 2023.