Eagles fly in new elementary building

By Audrey Seilheimer

With a pandemic looming in March 2020, Schoolcraft community members were preparing to head to the polls to vote for a second time on a proposed bond issue, an investment in new facilities for their students. 

School Board members and a team of volunteers, staff and parents, part of the “Yes to SCS” bond committee, had just spent eight weeks going door-to-door with flyers and information on why the buildings were not suitable for a simpler renovation and to ask taxpayers to support the proposal. 

The fluctuating temperatures of the heating and cooling system with the old boilers, crumpling ceiling tile and limited power outlets in the existing elementary were from the Eisenhower era. The committee showcased the issues in photos on Facebook and in the flyers that they passed out to neighbors detailing the conditions. They talked about the ways students and staff were disjointed in separate places and coping with the learning environment, which they felt would vastly improve and benefit future generations with a new building. 

The forethought of previous school boards had allowed for land to be set aside, which would allow all of the elementary classes to grow and be housed together in one cohesive, collaborative environment, creating the new campus. Having failed to pass the bond proposal the first time it came to a vote, the committee members used a green highlighter to go line by line, as they knocked the door of every voter they could reach to ensure they had enough “yes” votes. 

Saying YES to SCS

On March 10, 2020, voters approved the request for $39.9 million in bonds. The district levied an additional 3-mill property tax, equal to $3 on every $1,000 of taxable value, according to the district’s website. The district’s millage rate had been 4 mills. The proposal increased the overall rate to 7 mills, which equates to a tax increase of $150 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home. The funds were designated for a new building to house pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students and to construct an addition to the high school to accommodate seventh and eighth grade students.

And then the Covid-19 global pandemic hit and a shutdown of regular business forced a unique set of challenges to advancing the development of the building.

TMP Architecture and Triangle Construction Management, hired for the project, had to shift to Zoom meetings with stakeholders to plan and develop the new building. 

Covid-19 delays and logistics would cause challenges with steel and other materials. With supply chain delays and costs fluctuating, creative solutions were forced to the virtual table among all involved in the project. With the vote for the bond passing by just 93 votes after having previously failed, leaders were tasked with an ambitious list of promises to fulfill and a set of outcomes to design, all under an aggressive timeline to reach this generation of Schoolcraft students as soon as possible. 

“We have visiting leadership from other places coming and seeing what we have done here, who want to do what we’ve done in Schoolcraft, and it’s not possible now. They are trying and can’t do it. The cost of materials; the way in which we were fortunate to have the partners in building and development to make so many variables align in this timeline, under these conditions, you cannot recreate it. We are very fortunate,” said Rick Frens, Schoolcraft Community Schools superintendent.

Throughout the design and construction process, educators and board members were involved. Students helped design the three playgrounds. From removable, adjustable whiteboards to adjoining rooms for collaborative or independent study within a grade level pod, to “commons areas” to accommodate different learning tasks in ways to invigorate the daily routine by bringing students into a new shared learning space, the details they said, were made intentionally and are often multi-purposed for flexibility to maximize learning outcomes. 

Students and staff are eager to demonstrate the pride they have in their new building, which includes a welcoming media center and library as you enter the building, an expansive cafeteria with retractable glass doors for special events, new lockers within skylit hallways, a large athletic wing with a full court gymnasium, bleachers, concessions and playgrounds outfitted with tricycle track, accessibility for wheelchairs and sign language communication boards. 

Schoolcraft Community School Board President, Jennifer Gottschalk said the board and district leaders were very intentional about communicating each step of the process to the taxpayers with care for transparency in all aspects and challenges throughout the project. Via newsletter, video, photos, and a bond update Facebook page, the entire community was given a view into how it came together. 

“This process for a new building began with an extensive facilities assessment of our Upper and Lower Elementary, which were both over 50 years old. The assessment showed that a new building was less costly than remodeling either building.  So we began the process to hire TMP Architecture and Triangle Construction Management to work in tandem to design and price out the best fit for Schoolcraft.  Some of the major needs were safety and security, rooms designed for flexibility of each student’s needs, and consistent heating and cooling.

“We are so thankful to our community for supporting this bond and we intend to plan for the future needs of the district by putting together a facilities plan to keep up with the maintenance of both of our buildings,“ said Gottschalk.

A Grand Opening Ribbon Cutting

On Tuesday, September 26, 2023, in a rainstorm, families and community members attended a spirited ribbon cutting and open house in the building to allow everyone to tour the facility and ask questions.

Diane and Farley Tucker came to the open house because they wanted to see how the project turned out after they voted “no” twice on the funding when the proposal came before voters. They were awed by how huge the building is in scale and felt the expense to build the new elementary was “excessive.” They’ve lived in Schoolcraft for over 30 years and have grown children, no grandchildren and don’t know any of the current students. “This looks like (another) high school building!” Farley Tucker stated. 

When asked if they had seen the technological upgrades or spoken to any of the teachers about the benefits to the learning environment, they mentioned they had not, but were headed upstairs to look at classrooms. “My concern is that basic teaching supplies are often covered by teachers themselves and yet we funded all of this,” said Diane Tucker. She did not see the upgraded school benefiting her bottom line as taxpayer. “It won’t improve my home value. I live way out in the country. I just had to come and see what they spent the money on. I don’t understand why they need all of this. I believe enrollment is low.” Mr. and Mrs. Tucker described where they grew up and attended school and compared the facility to what they had as students growing up and felt they had enough, then compared it to other schools in the region. The disconnect between generations and the pace of change is everywhere in our modern world. “It’s a bit much for Schoolcraft.” said Diane Tucker. 

The Tuckers were trying to understand the reasoning and the promises made as part of the “Yes to SCS” bond campaign. “I like that they made the school more secure,” she commented.

The building was designed to keep up with the pace of new technology, with full integration of iPad and synced overhead projection capabilities to bounce between student and teacher. This is paired with data-driven recommendations toward enhanced learning methods and environments and helps address the competitive environment for attracting teaching talent.

Each promise fulfilled as part of the bond proposal was detailed on large posters set up on easels as visitors entered the school at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. These promises included: providing safety, engaging learning environments, energy efficient climate control (where teachers may modify their classrooms five degrees cooler or warmer to their preference), age appropriate playscapes, accessibility for all, and safe and efficient pick up and drop off areas in front of the school. 

“We set up a room in the old middle school as a staging area for testing and gathering feedback on different materials and functions under consideration for the new classrooms. We wanted to give teachers the opportunity to customize and give feedback at every step of the process,” said Matt Webster, assistant superintendent and elementary principal. “When we started this process, it wasn’t just about building new classrooms, it was about building new spaces for this community. Spaces for organizations doing all of their great work to benefit families and kids and the whole community all together. As we researched the history of Schoolcraft, we came across a quote that was from a handbook in 1892. It said ‘It’s vain to hope for the best results without hardy cooperation between the community and the school.’ And I think as you walk around the building you see what that cooperation has turned into and it’s an amazing environment.” 

Moving In

In the first weeks of school in the new building, the benefits to students have been very evident, said teacher Danielle Niewoonder. “Our collaboration spaces really bring things together. We have the spaces needed to work with students in small groups, while also keeping them connected to what is happening in the classroom. 

“The collaboration spaces are also so unique to have in an elementary school. You just don’t see rooms like these everywhere (versus students sitting in a hallway or trying to find quiet space.)

“I love coming into my space each day and teaching my students. We have always had amazing teams of teachers, and now we have spaces which match what we offer our students.” Niewoonder said.

After teaching for 29 years, educator Todd Allgor said younger teachers just starting their careers in Schoolcraft will have no idea how lucky they are. But he does. “I almost cried coming into this building. It’s incredible. The technology is a huge help with the sound system which allows me to be easily heard by students, and just being in a place where we are not sweltering while trying to teach and keep kids focused. It’s wonderful. We have enough power outlets for everything! There is a dual purpose for everything and so much thought went into the design. When I came into this building it was just a WOW!”

The only possible change he could view as negative was that he is forced to “get in his steps” because the building is so much bigger. But he‘s getting used to it. 

Third-grader Alise Denhartigh is 8 years old and attended the ribbon cutting with her family. She said she likes the STEM classroom where she was able to use tools to “build a carrot” and construct different objects while learning about science. Her older sister is a cheerleader and her younger sister doesn’t attend school yet at four years old. The Denhartigh family say they are thrilled with the new building. 

As part of a welcoming conference room at the front of the new building, where teachers can host meetings with parents and students, a large wood conference table was designed using surviving flooring from the first Schoolcraft village schoolhouse. The first schoolhouse was constructed in 1871 but had to be rebuilt after a fire. It was originally located at the intersection of Cedar and Cass streets, in the heart of the village.  Eric McGehee, coach, parent and Schoolcraft schools employee, crafted the new table to gather around and experience the full legacy of Schoolcraft in the space.

“It was well-researched, intentional design, all the way,” said Principal Matt Webster. “The school’s staff culture is very ‘family-like’ and the family-style seating ensures that lunches and meetings are opportunities to sit with and enjoy one another.” 

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