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Open spaces key to new middle school

“Gorgeous.” “State of the art.” “So bright and inviting.” “Even better than I expected.” “Beautiful.” “Just incredible.”

These comments were heard as administrators, teachers and support staff toured the new Sparta Middle School just days before school doors opened on Aug. 25.

Despite challenges of social distancing requirements due to the coronavirus pandemic that forced all Michigan schools to close in March, staff was eager to greet students at the opening of long-anticipated building.

“I am most excited for our middle-school students to have this space designed to meet their learning needs,” said Principal Brad Wood. “We just love the natural light and all the versatile learning spaces. Our staff was already innovative, and they are eager to utilize this special space. This is a solid recipe for dynamic learning.”

New teacher Clay Francisco spends time in the classroom before students arrive

The classroom wings are nearly all glass and equipped with technology and connectivity, giving teachers and students the ability to be in multiple spaces without losing contact. The project areas are designed so students can easily break into groups and work together while still being connected to classroom teachers. 

Administrators know that new health standards demanding social distancing will temper the original project space plan, but are confident the extra space, glass dividers and double-sized classrooms available will aid in their efforts to provide a safe learning environment for students.

“I am really excited to be with students again after five months,” said math teacher Erin Ondrusek.  “It will be wonderful to share this new space with kids.”

Construction of the new facility was part of a $58.6-million bond passed in 2016. Students who will attend school there were present at a formal groundbreaking ceremony in November 2018.

“We are really excited about the new building. We have been looking forward to it for the last two years, but it is somewhat unfortunate that we are opening in midst of a pandemic,” said Superintendent Pete Bush. “We can’t celebrate with the community in an open-house format and let them see firsthand what their bond money went for.”

Added Ondresek: “I am so excited to have the community see what they have supplied for their kids.”

Wood said it has already proven to be a challenging year to be opening a building, “but I am very thankful we get to do something this positive for the kids during this time.”

Construction has ended; new Sparta Middle School opens

‘So many things to support kids’

The bright, open spaces, provided by large windows and high ceilings, and the open-area cafe impressed Sylvia Longcore, a support staffer at the middle school.

Expanded technology and audio visual capabilities have already exceeded expectations, Wood said. “We are able to do so many things to support kids in their learning than we were unable to do before.

“It is not just a state-of-the-art building, but has protocols to support learning. Staff will have opportunities to freely use space that is open and versatile and very student-centric to empower kids to stay engaged instead of the teacher being the ‘sage on the stage.’” 

There are multiple areas with projection systems and for students to work outside classrooms while staying within teacher sights.

Special education teacher Karen Fix is especially looking forward to having learning spaces that are equipped with voice-amplified systems for hearing-impaired students, larger spaces for learning activities and upgraded electrical for technology use. “In our old building we had lots of issues with not having enough plugs,” she said.

Longtime teacher Keith Tidey, who served on the middle school design committee and visited numerous schools to explore improved learning spaces, said the results are so incredible that other districts across the state are already looking at Sparta’s building. “The committee traveled to other innovative school spaces, but this turned out even better than I thought it could,” he said.

“This is a solid recipe for dynamic learning.”

–Sparta Middle School Principal Brad Wood

While safety of students was the top priority in the design, it is perhaps best displayed in the large, open two-way staircase in the center of the building. “There are no stairwells for students to hide in, and it allows for efficient two-way travel and safe distancing when necessary,” Wood said. 

The gymnasium, workout room and lockers are spacious, open and well-lit. “You won’t find a better athletic facility in any middle school,” said Tidey, who also serves as athletic director for the middle school.

Clay Francisco, who is beginning his first contracted teaching position, said he feels fortunate to land in the new facility.

“There are no limits to what we can accomplish in this space,” he said. “If I think of something we could do, the odds are I can accomplish it in this space. The space is perfect, and I am excited to start my career here in Sparta.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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