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An abandoned middle school in the middle of a suburban neighborhood that languished in disrepair for nearly three decades.

Olsen Middle School

Olsen Middle School | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

A mile from the beach in South Florida is probably not where one would expect to find a decaying, abandoned school. Yet tucked in this suburban neighborhood in Dania Beach sits the old Olsen Middle School. With a population of just over 30,000 as of 2023, Dania Beach can be considered relatively small compared to neighboring Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale.

Olsen Middle School is part of the Broward County Public School District. Constructed in 1954, Olsen Middle School served portions of Dania Beach and Hollywood for over four decades. In 1994, the School Board of Broward County purchased the land next to the original school campus to build a new state-of-the-art facility. The plan put forth by the district at the time was to demolish the old school and build athletic fields in its place.

Olsen Middle School

The main hallway at Olsen Middle School | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

Students and staff moved into the newly constructed school campus in the 1994-1995 school year, though overcrowding immediately became an issue. Nearly 2,000 students were enrolled at Olsen Middle School at the time, exceeding the limits of the newly built school campus.

To alleviate the overcrowding, it was decided that the old Olsen Middle School would be used as a sixth grade center. Sixth grade students would be housed on the old campus before moving over to the newly constructed Olsen campus for seventh and eighth grade. This move allowed sixth grade students another year to "grow" before moving over to the main campus, school officials said. For the next decade or so, this was the setup for students attending Olsen Middle School. By the mid-2000s, the sixth grade students were housed in the front part of the old campus and some seventh grade students were in the back, while the remaining seventh and eighth grade students were in the new buildings next door.

Olsen Middle School

Books left behind at Olsen Middle School | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

Over the years, enrollment declined at Olsen Middle School - and public schools in general - as many parents sought out alternatives in the form of local charter schools. Olsen's enrollment tailspin could also be attributed to rampant scheduling issues, declining test scores, and disruptive staff turnover. 1,486 students were enrolled at the school in 2005. In 2010, this number had dropped to 1,134, and by 2012 attendance had plummeted below 1,000. As the amount of students enrolled decreased, the school consolidated all grades onto the new campus, leaving the old buildings next door empty.

Though the old Olsen campus now sat empty, the School District's plan to transform the property into athletic fields never came to fruition.

26 years after the new school campus opened, serious talks about the demolition of the aging abandoned school reignited. The old school had been fenced off and boarded up for decades at that point. Dania Beach residents and city officials had been pushing to have something done about the aging and abandoned property for years, but these complaints had repeatedly fallen on deaf ears at the School Board. The buildings were so tainted with mold, asbestos, and lead that the school board deemed it too dangerous to allow city staff to enter. Local residents called the old school buildings that had been left to rot a "scourge" and an "eyesore."

Olsen Middle School

Olsen Middle School | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

Neighbors complained that the old school buildings were a magnet for drifters and delinquents, as well as rats, raccoons, and even reportedly a family of foxes. On July 3, 2007, the school system requested and received permission from the Florida Department of Education to tear down the decaying school, though that was about as far as it went.

For the next decade, residents and city officials would complain about the old school building and push for the project to move forward to no avail. Every time the city of Dania Beach asked district officials about the decaying buildings, they were told there was no money to spend on the demolition.

Olsen Middle School

Olsen Middle School | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

School Board officials claimed demolition costs could reach as high as $3 million because the building's floor and ceilings contain asbestos. However, school records show the costs to be an estimated $710,346, far cheaper than expected. A plan to move forward with demolishing the ten buildings that made up the old Olsen Middle School was finally approved by School Board members in August 2020. The money for the project would come from the school district's $800 million bond program that was approved by voters in 2014.

The SMART bond program - short for 'safety, music, art, athletics, renovations, and technology' - is an $800 million capital improvement program. One of the primary focuses of the bond program was to upgrade existing school facilities in Broward County Public Schools.

The school district allocated $800,000 from its SMART bond program to tear down the 66-year-old school. Dania Beach Commissioner Bill Harris said he was thrilled that the old school was finally being taken down. "It's two blocks from where I live," he said to the Sun Sentinel in 2019, "I drive by it every day."

Google Earth image of Olsen Middle School

Google Earth image from December 11, 2018 showing the old Olsen Middle School campus to the left and the new campus built in 1994 to the right | Source: Google Earth

Demolition of the old Olsen Middle School began on February 8, 2021. Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie admitted that many of the projects funded by the SMART bond program are way behind schedule, having expanded into more complicated and expensive endeavors than had been anticipated in 2014. The amount of time and money dedicated to the SMART-funded projects throughout the school district are just estimates, Runcie said in a 2021 NBC 6 news article about the demolition of the school. "Those aren’t the real numbers of the scopes of the projects we’re dealing with, so I think the criticism that it's taking far longer than everyone expected is fair."

It was unclear what the plans were for the 7-acre property following demolition; whether it would be used as a park and sports fields, as originally proposed nearly three decades earlier, or simply left as a greenspace. Dania Beach's mayor insisted that the city wants a say in what happens to the land.

(Side note: Am I the only one that feels like the term “greenspace” being used to describe a piece of land that hasn’t been gobbled up by developers is uncomfortably dystopian?)

Olsen Middle School

Olsen Middle School | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

It's probably wise to leave the land undeveloped, considering the issues Dania Beach has had with flooding. While the extreme flooding in Dania Beach and Fort Lauderdale in April 2023 that made national news is considered an outlier and a "once in a thousand-year flood," Dania Beach has faced issues with flooding for years even after regular rainstorms - of which there are many in South Florida. It doesn't take 24 inches of rain in 12 hours to leave many side streets in neighborhoods underwater.

Dania Beach should look to Fort Lauderdale as a cautionary tale. As the city allows developers to come in and build more and more high-rise apartments and condos without updating the city's underground infrastructure, flooding concerns will only get worse, and paving over all available green spaces will only exacerbate that problem. In a city full of pavement and buildings, there's nowhere for that water to go.

Nearly three years after the old Olsen Middle School buildings were demolished, little has been done with the land. As of January 2024, the campus remains fenced off as the city of Dania Beach, the School Board of Broward County, and neighborhood residents try to come to an agreement about what should be done with the space. In the meantime, the old Olsen Middle School campus remains a grassy field with a few newly planted trees, a refreshing piece of open land amid a city building beyond its means.

Olsen Middle School

The old Olsen Middle School cafeteria where Flowerbomb hit a girl in the face with pudding (she deserved it) | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

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