A NEW ERA
By ANDREW MCGINN
Natural light pours into nearly every space of the new high school that will open on Aug. 27.
Every room has a view to the outside world, Sam Harding explained Monday during an invitation-only tour of the new high school/career academy led by the former longtime Greene County Schools board member.
In the new media center at Greene County High School, it’s so easy to be impressed by the expansive view of Jefferson’s bright-green water tower that it’s also easy to overlook the fact the new library has no doors.
Frankly, it would seem the last thing a kid is liable to steal at the start of the third decade of the 21st century is, alas, a book.
Not that a smuggled library copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” — or, maybe more appropriately, George Orwell’s “1984” — is sure to get very far.
The new school — the product of a successful, $21.48 million bond referendum in 2018 — is equipped with a “couple hundred” high-resolution cameras with facial recognition software, according to Harding.
Even without furnishings — those are scheduled to arrive Monday aboard three or four semis — the new facility facing U.S. Highway 30 is a bold attempt to level the playing field in education between rural Iowa and the booming metro suburbs.
Collaborative learning is now the name of the game. Tables and chairs will replace desks. Lounge furniture and ports for charging devices will be plentiful in common areas. Even the lunchroom — er, the servery — will offer students a choice of dining options, and a salad bar.
“This is not a ‘sit and get’ high school,” explained Harding, who has overseen every step of construction on the district’s behalf as the owner’s representative.
Students today, he said, are required to think more critically and more collaboratively “than any of us did in high school.”
Harding led three tours this week for members of the media, the board of education, the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. and county supervisors — all of whom played a part in making the project a reality, either with direct financing or support, after two previous bond issues went down in defeat.
What pushed that third bond attempt over the top was the addition of a regional career academy adjoining the high school. The academy will be equipped and staffed by Iowa Central Community College, and open to students in area districts for training and college credit.
At the time of the vote, the academy was to feature four program strands: computer software, precision agriculture, advanced manufacturing and culinary arts. That has since grown to include construction/building trades and health care.
“Iowa Central is really equipping this building,” Harding said during Monday’s tour. “They’re not cutting corners, and I’m very happy with that.”
He thought Iowa Central might have six welding stations, but instead will have 12 when the career academy opens.
Two adjoining but separate culinary kitchens — one for Iowa Central students and one for the Ram Restaurant — would be the envy of any chef.
Harding said Iowa Central also plans to provide local ag students instruction in how to work on high-tech John Deere tractors. That kind of training, he said, is currently only available at one school in a three-state area.
Steve Shuey, project superintendent for Henkel Construction, said he recently gave his daughter — a teacher in a smaller district — a tour of the school, which was about 95 percent finished as of Monday.
“She was jealous,” Shuey said.
Collaboration is now the prevailing concept in teacher prep programs, but older schools — like the decommissioned, century-old middle school building in Jefferson — are usually too cramped and sectioned off to accommodate the new way of learning.
Shuey and Harding described the new facility as a showpiece for the community — but one that didn’t fleece local taxpayers.
The district originally planned to spend $35.48 million to build the combined high school/career academy, but has stayed well under budget. The total cost now appears to be $33 million, Harding said.
Greene County Schools was expected to take possession on Wednesday following inspections.
“It should serve this community for a long time,” Harding said.
The building’s competition gym will seat a total of 1,500 fans, with seating on both sides, up from a one-sided seating capacity of 800 at the old gym.
“I’m sure graduation will be a lot different sitting in an air-conditioned gym,” Harding said.
The gym also features a video board, and will boast portable backstops manufactured locally and donated by AAI/Spalding, which produces the same kind of equipment for the NBA.
Harding, however, is already most proud of the new school’s 700-seat performing arts center — complete with a full orchestra pit — which isn’t expected to be complete until October.
Designed with input from consultants who have designed Broadway showhouses, Harding said rigging will enable theater productions to fly sets a story-and-a-half tall up and down.
The stage also features a sound-boosting wireless mic system.
“The auditorium is the signature piece,” Harding said after the tour. “It’s leaps and bounds above the gym. And the gym is fantastic.”
Nearby rooms for choir and instrumental music were built specifically to achieve “perfect” acoustics, Harding said. Both rooms also have equipment enabling ensembles to make professional-level recordings on the spot for contests, Harding said.
“Our community loves the arts,” he said. “Nobody is going to complain how much we’ve spent here.”
Technology, of course, abounds in the new facility, from Android/Windows-capable touchscreen monitors in every classroom to a daylight harvesting system that controls lighting, thus saving on electricity.
But when the new school opens for classes on Aug. 27 — barring any COVID-related changes for Iowa schools — some things will be as they always were.
“This is Teresa Green’s room,” Harding said, pointing to where Green will begin her 40th year teaching business classes.
And those three cubicles located near the back of the office?
They’re for in-school suspension.