High schools get new lives as middle schools

Conversions extend usefullness of facilities

The middle school in Anamosa was built in 1885. A new middle school is under construction and scheduled to open in the fall of 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The middle school in Anamosa was built in 1885. A new middle school is under construction and scheduled to open in the fall of 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

ANAMOSA — Dylan Wood wasn’t in the West Middle School classroom when part of the roof collapsed in January 2010. He was in the room next door.

“There was a big thud,” the eighth-grader said. “Our math teacher opened the door to see if everyone was all right, and dust whooshed into our classroom.”

Support beams were added throughout the 126-year-old building, a short-term solution for a facility long past its prime.

“This building is very, very old,” Superintendent Brian Ney said. “There’s only so much you can do to make it usable.”

In the school building hierarchy, middle school facilities are the middle child — too big for elementary, not quite big enough for high school. Perhaps that’s why it seems most middle school buildings are a school district’s hand-me-down.

“High school buildings tend to be the most visible school in your district, so as a result they tend to get the most attention,” said Mike Jorgensen, superintendent of the Washington school district.

The district is building a new high school, scheduled to open in fall 2012. Once it does, the current high school — which was constructed in 1918, with an addition in 1953 — will become the district’s middle school for sixth through eighth-grade students.

High schools play host to most district events, from athletics to fine arts. In smaller communities, the high school building could be the town’s largest facility, so it doubles as a community building.

“Most people in a school district tend to associate with the high school, not the middle school,” Jorgensen said.

Then there’s the convenience factor. The average high school is about 160 square feet per student. The average middle school is about 150 square feet per student.

“It’s pretty convenient to turn a high school into a middle school,” said Franklin Brown, planning director at the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission. “It’s not so easy to renovate a high school to an elementary school.”

At the same time, the needs of high school and elementary school students are significantly different. Middle school students’ needs are different, too, but they are closer to the older students’ than the younger crowd.

In a Gazette survey of 53 Eastern Iowa school districts, only 21 districts have middle, or junior high, school buildings. Of that total, more than half served high school students at one time.

Solon Middle School opened as a junior-senior high school in 1917. In 2002, the district opened a new high school, and the old building was renovated for the district’s fifth through eighth-grade students. The middle school underwent a $1 million renovation last year that included new windows and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

“It doesn’t really feel like an old building,” Solon Superintendent Sam Miller said of the middle school, which also houses the district’s administrative offices.

Miller admits there are parts of the building that don’t feel like a middle school, either.

“We’re looking at doing a media center, commons and maybe a lunchroom renovation — projects that will make the building more inviting,” he said.

The media center is especially needed when you see media centers at the high school and Lakeview Elementary School, which is undergoing a $6 million renovation. Both are large, airy — places that students want to be.

“The elementary and high school have such great spaces for students,” Miller said. “It makes the imbalance even greater, which is why we’re going to address it.”

Imbalance is something students and staff at West in Anamosa have experienced for years.

“You have some classrooms that are too hot, some that are too cold,” eighth-grader Sydney Barnes said.

With his office in the middle school, Ney can’t ignore the dated heating and cooling system, the lack of handicap-accessibility or the support beams.

“I can’t imagine this building ever being a high school, serving four grades,” he said.

The building was constructed in 1885. It served as the district’s high school until the new high school opened in fall 1968. Since then, it has been a middle school for sixth through eighth-grade students.

Soon, it won’t be serving any students. The district is building a $12.4 million middle school. The project is funded through the state’s Qualified School Construction Bond program after patrons defeated several bond issues.

“There are people who thought we should build a high school, but you can’t do that for $12.4 million,” Ney said. “When it comes right down to need, I would say we don’t need a new high school. We need improvements, some additions, but we need a new middle school more.”

The new school, which will serve fifth through eighth-grade students, is slated to open next year.

“Hopefully, we’re building for the future,” Ney said.

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