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Two high schools, newly renovated, await return of students

Ottawa, Union upgrades part of $175 million bond in 2015

As Long Nguyen gave a tour recently of the renovations at Ottawa Hills High School, he made a stop in the main office, located on the second level of a brand-new, 4,604-square-foot entry area located on the building’s west side.

“How do you like the new space?” his tour guest asked one of the secretaries.

“It’s great,” she said, “but these drawers don’t lock.”

Nguyen quickly skirted around the Plexiglas barrier, adjusted his face mask to make sure it was in place and took a look at the offending drawers, pulling out his phone to take a picture and jot down a note.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said before moving on with the tour.

Just another day in the life of the director of design, construction, and renovation for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Nguyen is a central figure in the recent renovations of both Ottawa Hills High School, his alma mater, and Union High School. The two projects have consumed countless hours and days for Nguyen since they began in August 2019, for both him and for numerous tradespeople in West Michigan.

The extensive renovations on the approximately 50-year-old buildings will provide safer, more comfortable and attractive learning environments when students return, Nguyen said. Although fall sports have resumed, all GRPS students are taking virtual instruction for the first marking period. 

“We want it to look nice but focus on the comfort,” Nguyen said, during a separate tour of Union. “It really is (for) the comfort and safety of the kids.”   

Existing Systems Beyond their Useful Life

At Union, about 250 workers will have been part of the project by the time the work is complete next fall. They include almost 70 people in electrical, 70 in mechanical, 40 folks on the concrete and masonry side of things, 23 carpenters and a dozen painters.

The numbers are a little less at Ottawa Hills, where a total of about 150 tradespeople have been part of the renovations, including 22 in concrete and masonry, 15 on drywall, 26 on electrical and 25 on mechanical. Both jobs also included GRPS facilities people to help support the contractors.

Of both schools, Nguyen, a man of few words, said simply: “Existing mechanical and electrical systems were beyond their useful life.” 

The $23 million Union project is expected to be complete in December 2021, while the $21 million Ottawa Hills project is almost finished — this despite 33 working days lost from March 24 through May 11 because of COVID-19.

Both renovations are part of a 30-year, $175 million school improvement bond approved in November 2015 with the majority, $155 million, earmarked for construction. 

And both will bring improved safety and security to the two sprawling schools. That includes secure vestibules at each school that route all visitors to the office area before being allowed into the school in a two-step process. The entries require an initial request to enter the vestibule with a video intercom, and a second door release to allow the visitor into the main office area.

New flooring and lockers brighten the hallways of Union High

New Main Entrances for Both Schools

At 323,829-square-foot Ottawa Hills, an old and sometimes hard-to-find entrance off Rosewood Avenue SE on the building’s east side will no longer function as the school’s front door. Rather, a colorful and easy-to-spot main entrance has been constructed as part of the addition on the west side of the building. That addition features secure entry and an administration office addition with offices on both levels.

Less visible, but also important, said Nguyen, is 4,350 lineal feet of new HVAC rectangular ductwork and 1,725 lineal feet of spiral ductwork in the building. The ductwork replaced old pipes and will now carry air conditioning during months that used to render classrooms inhospitably hot. AC was also added at Union as well as converting the building to hot-water heat instead of steam. 

The Ottawa Hills project also includes:

  • classroom renovations (new paint, floors and technology)
  • gymnasium and locker room renovations, including a new, 12,000-square foot wooden floor in the gym
  • new kitchen and conversion of mall area to cafeteria

‘About as Good as it Gets’ 

At 286,000-square-foot Union, improvements include:

  • classroom renovations and expansions, including new paint, carpeting, furniture and technology
  • heating and cooling and electrical upgrades, including new boilers
  • gymnasium and locker room renovations, including a new gym floor, main-court basketball hoops and bleachers 
  • art/music/science renovations
  • security entrances
  • new ceiling tiles 
  • renovated bathrooms, including single-user facilities

When Union students return to classes, they’ll also come through a new main entrance, in their case on the building’s north side rather than the former student entrance on the west. They too will be greeted by new floors and lockers, and step into renovated classrooms featuring whiteboards with smart technology. 

Kurt Sattler, a government and AP history teacher, was leading an online class from his room on a recent morning. While navigating the tricky business of Zoom instruction, he welcomed the return of students and the room’s enhanced technology, including a new audio system. 

“We had been using overheads that weren’t smart,” said Sattler, adding the new smartboards and online tools will be helpful for many teachers. “This is about as good as it can get. We’re doing a good job.” 

Principal Aaron Roussey said staff and students are thankful to the community for supporting the 2015 bond that made the Union renovations possible.

“We have a fantastic student body that is eager to put to use all the new technology and facility upgrades,” Roussey said. “A big thank you from the ‘U.’”

Charles Honey contributed to this story

Union High government and history teacher Kurt Sattler teaches remotely from his classroom, featuring new ceiling tile, carpeting and audio-visual technology
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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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