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Small-town togetherness reflected in new school

New building showcases learning

Sparta — English Language teacher Alec Dood, whose class recently shared the “glow games” literary experience with Jenna Conlin’s class, said “every student was engaged” in the ultimate, black-out, neon experience at Sparta Middle School.

As students rotated stations that included challenges such as cup pong,  water bottle flip, football toss and bowling, they worked to identify literary terms.

Implementing unique class time like the glow games was heightened by the new building’s design. The middle school and architectural and engineering firm GMB, based in Holland, were honored by “Learning by Design,” a magazine that highlights unique K-12 and college building designs that best foster learning.

“It is one thing to build a building, but a lot different to build one that doesn’t just function well but also reflects the values of the kids and people who get to be in it,” said Sparta Middle School Principal Brad Wood.

“This is a small town with a tremendous sense of togetherness, and that was integrated into the design of this building.”

Space for Learning

Each classroom hallway has project rooms with easily movable walls and furniture, making it possible for teachers to extend their classroom size when needed.

“We can go to 10,000 square-feet in a matter of minutes,” said Wood. “The space is designed to be flexible, and the type of teaching that can be done in this building is flexible as well.”

An art student works on capturing light

A recent business showcase presented by Conlin’s ELA students in partnership with the West Michigan Business Association was one example of how the new spaces can be adapted.

“Students had opportunities to interview business leaders, investigate goals and missions of the business, and uncover what makes West Michigan a great place for their business to operate,” said Dood.

Staff and students who attended the event had the chance to learn more about area businesses, to vote for the most effective presentations, and watch sixth and seventh-graders present authentic work created in a project-based, inquiry-learning program.

‘It is one thing to build a building, but a lot different to build one that doesn’t just function well but also reflects the values of the kids and people who get to be in it.’

— Sparta Middle School Principal Brad Wood

The spaces affect how students function, said Wood. “The amount of light, open spaces and access to technology makes for better learning and has a positive effect on behavior. That brings a unique energy to the curriculum.”

Art and photography teacher Julie Aitken said the room’s design allows her to teach “lessons that encourage students to think outside of the box.”

For instance, tables on wheels and adjustable lighting made for a “light painting” project, in which students used a longer camera shutter speed to capture traces of light and create a 3D orb effect. 

A Source of Optimism

The new middle school was part of a $58.6-million bond passed in 2016. It opened in fall 2020, at a time when districts were not even sure students would be allowed in the building. While at the time, it seemed disappointing not to host an open house for the community and taxpayers who voted to fund it, the extra space was welcomed and made for easier social distancing rules during school hours.

But as difficult as that first year was, the specially designed learning space seemed then and remains a bright spot in the district, said Wood.

 “It served as a source of optimism  when people needed some,” he said. “There is a  great sense of pride and gratitude across the district for this space.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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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

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