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New building creates strong foundation for early childhood  

Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Thornapple Kellogg — Four-year-old Adaleigha Chapman drove her Little Tikes car around the walkways of the playground at Thornapple Kellogg’s new Early Childhood Center and shouted, “I can go so fast!” 

Just a year ago, there wouldn’t have been enough space on campus for preschool students like Adaleigha to bike, scooter or “drive” cars around the playground. That’s because until this school year, the district’s early childhood education classes met in an 84-year-old building with a tiny playground and dark, cramped classroom spaces. 

The new facility came to fruition thanks to a 25-year, $42.8 million bond approved by voters in November 2019. Construction on the center began in May 2021 and in just over a year, its doors opened to welcome families. 

In addition to the new Early Childhood Center, voters also approved funds to replace aging tennis courts, which re-opened recently. Prior to this year, bond projects added needed classroom space to the district’s three elementary schools and helped to repair aging district infrastructure.

The expansive new Early Childhood Center is at the corner of Bender and Adams roads, less than a mile from Page Elementary and Thornapple Kellogg Middle. At nearly 33,000 square-feet, it is able to serve more children from the growing number of families in the district. 

“(In our old building) we couldn’t even house all of our programs,” said Director Sarah Hammer. “This just gives the kids so much more space.”

With the move to the new building, Hammer has been able to add three more preschool sections to serve families, including an additional classroom for Kent ISD’s Great Start Readiness Program

Theresa Orr, a GSRP teacher who has worked at TK’s Early Childhood Center for four years, said the new facility boosts her mood every morning when she arrives at work. 

“Getting prepared for the day and coming into such an organized space with natural light is great,” she said. 

Orr’s new space also includes an in-class restroom, ultra-functional cabinets and display cases to create a calmer learning environment for her students. They also have access to a new multi-purpose room/gym, a sensory room, a horizontal climbing wall and a massive outdoor play area. 

As a class of 4-year-old preschoolers enjoyed time in their new playground, it was clear that the space takes recess to a whole new level. 

A group of boys dug for fossils in a large sand pit while others biked and scootered around the extensive walkway where Hammer said they will host their very first bike-a-thon fundraising event in the spring. Other playground features include a fallen tree for climbing and balancing, a mud kitchen and giant construction tunnels that student artists will decorate. 

Miranda Baranek, a teacher in the center’s special education classroom, said that the new play structures and spaces serve her students’ needs well. 

“With new spaces like the sensory room and the multipurpose room, we’re able to meet the needs of our (special education) kids more adequately. We did the best we could there (at the old building) but now we have the playground and other spaces to do better,” she said. 

Construction on the new Early Childhood Center was led by TK alumnus Cade Dammen, Owen-Ames-Kimball’s director of field operations. Dammen’s own son, 4-year-old Paxton, got to be part of the ECC’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“This is a super special project to me as a TK alumni, a community member and now a parent in the district,” he said at the ceremony. 

Once the formal part of the opening was done, Paxton made his way through the halls, running around his new gym, scaling the climbing wall and making the most important decision of the night: which part of the new playground to explore first.

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Allison Poosawtsee
Allison Poosawtsee
Allison Poosawtsee is a reporter covering Rockford Public Schools and Kent City Community Schools. She has spent 15+ years working and writing in the education context, first for her alma mater, Calvin University, and then for various businesses and nonprofit organizations in the Grand Rapids area. As a student journalist, she served as editor-in-chief of Calvin’s student newspaper where she garnered several Michigan Collegiate Press Association awards for her work. Allison is a proud parent of two Grand Rapids Public Schools scholars and a passionate advocate for the value of public education.


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