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New dual immersion school an ‘impressive investment’ in students, community

Southwest Community Campus middle and high school to open in August

Something special is taking shape on Grand Rapids’ Southwest Side: a new, 500-student school that will house the city’s first dual-immersion English/Spanish high school. 

Cranes are lifting beams and workers are laying blocks at a construction site between Grandville Avenue SW and the U.S. 131 freeway, as crews busily build a four-story school in time for classes to begin next August. The school will be a grades 7-12 extension of Southwest Community Campus, a dual-immersion program a few blocks south at 801 Oakland Ave. SW. Seventh and eighth graders from the pre-K-8 SWCC will move into the new middle and high school next fall, with a grade added each subsequent year.

Recently touring the building for the first time, SWCC Principal Carlos de la Barrera was struck by its light-filled ambience, spacious classrooms and how well it will serve his students and the surrounding community. 

“Such an impressive investment validates our belief that our students are smart and that they deserve our full support,” de la Barrera said of the $20 million project. “We always preach that we value our students and their families so this new building is a tangible expression that reinforces our belief.”

A Place for Education, Housing and More  

As yet to be named, the new school will anchor Plaza Roosevelt, a 5.5-acre, multi-use development offering affordable housing, health-care services, after-school and community activities and college-level programs. A new city park will abut the school as well. 

Five single-family homes and three townhouse units are currently being built by Habitat for Humanity south of the school, and apartments and retail space to the west are planned by Dwelling Place. Nearby Mercy Health’s Clinica Santa Maria and Cook Arts Center plan on increasing their services. 

‘Such an impressive investment validates our belief that our students are smart and that they deserve our full support.’

– SWCC Principal Carlos de la Barrera

Meetings among eight partner agencies and with neighbors have been integral to the school and larger development, said Jeff Brakefield, the school project superintendent for Rockford Construction. Architects were c2ae and TMP Architecture. 

“It’s really been a neighborhood project,” said Brakefield, a 1973 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School, who oversees 28 contractors on-site. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. Everybody’s on board with revitalizing the neighborhood.” 

Jeff Brakefield, project superintendent for Rockford Construction, points out features of the 7,070-square-foot gym to SWCC Principal Carlos de la Barrera, center, and Assistant Superintendent Mark Bacci

Let There be Light 

The 75,000-square-foot facility is built into the side of a hill sloping towards the freeway east of Grandville Avenue SW, between Graham and Rumsey streets. The district purchased the 1.7-acre property in January from Habitat for Humanity. The project is funded by the $175 million bond approved by voters in 2015. 

The school will house two dozen classrooms on the third and fourth floors; art, music and science rooms and administrative offices on the second; and a gym and locker rooms, dining area and kitchen on the first floor. The gym and kitchen will be available for community use, de la Barrera said. 

The LEED-certified building features generous natural light, including storefront-style windows on third-floor classrooms – a plus for both energy efficiency and learning. A third-floor “knowledge center” will have an expansive view of downtown.

“It’s very, very important how (natural light) affects your mood and your emotions, in any place, especially in a school where you spend so many hours in a classroom,” de la Barrera said.   

It will also feature aesthetic touches such as an entryway mural, and neighbors had input into the warm color schemes chosen for each floor. The community will also weigh in on a mascot for the school, de la Barrera said. 

Principal Carlos de la Barrera, at left with project superintendent Jeff Brakefield, says the school’s generous natural light will enhance student learning

Applications Being Taken  

Applications have started coming in from families in GRPS and beyond. Besides accepting students now enrolled at Southwest Community Campus, the school’s feeder boundaries were expanded to take in Chavez Elementary School, de la Barrera said. Applications are now being accepted until Nov. 29, with a second round to be held in January. 

Neighborhood students get first priority but must pass an admissions test to demonstrate bilingual ability, de la Barrera said, adding current students don’t need to reapply. The school will offer classes in both Spanish and English, including courses in Spanish culture, literature and history, reflecting its commitment to “biculturalism,” he said. 

“We prepare our students to succeed in a multicultural society where being literate in two languages and understanding different cultures is an asset. These skills are in great demand and will open the doors to our students when searching for employment in the near future.”

The school will enable SWCC students who might otherwise have moved out of district to continue their program “in our community’s backyard,” he said. 

“The new high school is a beautiful state of the art building that will always remind me of how far we can go when we have a strong collaboration between our community and GRPS.”

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SNN story: Housing + School + Healthcare, All in One Place

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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