As groundbreakings go, the one that officially welcomed the construction of a new gym and major renovation at S.E. Gross Middle School on May 24 had to be somewhat imaginative.

Faced with the prospect of pretending to put a spade through solid asphalt or trotting out a silver-tipped jackhammer, officials opted for building a wood box and filling it with dirt that could be shoveled onto the asphalt.

It got the job done.

But soon enough, a large swath of the asphalt playground will be excavated to make way for the new gymnasium, which is part of a $35 million construction effort undertaken by Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 with the support of taxpayers, who approved a $20 million bond referendum last year.

“In approving that referendum, the community invested in you, the students of District 95, and all of our future students,” said S.E. Gross Principal Ryan Evans at the outdoor ceremony, which was attended by students, staff, school board members and architects. 

“They have made sure that the school’s growth will match the growing demand to live and raise a family in these communities,” Evans added. “[S.E. Gross School] will see facilities that finally match the enrollment of our school.”

District officials held a similar ceremony at Brook Park Elementary School in LaGrange Park earlier the same day. Plans call for a new gymnasium and new classroom wing addition there.

In addition to the S.E. Gross gymnasium, which Evans said will be available for community use after school hours, the improvements to the existing school include remaking the wing of the building that formerly housed the district offices, the music room, industrial arts room and the auditorium.

While construction at Brook Park Elementary School in LaGrange Park will begin in earnest in June, demolition work has already started inside S.E. Gross School. Going away for good will be the old-fashioned, two-story auditorium, which spanned the second and third floors of the wing being renovated.

A new “cafetorium” on the ground floor of that wing will do double duty as a performance space and a lunchroom, capable of seating the 150 to 160 students expected to comprise middle school grade levels in coming years.

The second floor will house a two-story band room as well as an art room and conference room.

And, officially, industrial arts – also known as wood shop – won’t be part of the middle school elective curriculum moving forward. The program’s longtime teacher, Tim Rost, is retiring and the district has decided to pull the plug for good.

Teachers for such classes are hard to find, but faced with an opportunity to move the curriculum in a new direction, school officials leapt at the chance.

“A lot of the philosophy [industrial arts] taught will be brought into this program,” Evans said. “They aren’t so very different. You are going to be getting your hands dirty. You are going to be building. You’re going to be trying and failing and succeeding, reworking. That’s what they did in the shop. That’s what they’re going to do here, but incorporating the technology piece.”

On the third floor of the renovated wing, the district plans to create a STEM lab and will use the next year to explore and adopt the curriculum for it. 

The district has already identified the person who will lead the STEM program, Megan Hacholski, a science teacher at Simmons School in Oak Lawn. The school board still needs to formally approve hiring Hacholski, Evans said

“She came forward with a multiyear plan of how she would go about developing this space from beginning to end,” Evans said. “And her vision and our vision aligned very well.”

During the 2018-19 school year, while the STEM lab will still be under construction and the curriculum is being developed, the semester-long elective class will focus on digital skills, using a Google suite of apps as well as coding and programming.

According to Evans, the district is hoping in the future – perhaps five years out — to create a second STEM lab by repurposing two adjacent computer labs on the third floor. By increasing the footprint of the program, Evans said the goal would be for every student in the school to be exposed to the STEM curriculum and not just as an elective.

“As we build out the program, the goal would be that all students are exposed to the space throughout the school year,” Evans said. “You want kids exposed to this.”

The new spaces and gymnasium, according to the district’s construction timeline, ought to be ready for use for the 2019-20 school year. 

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