Nothing less than stunning.
It’s the first completely new school for the middle and upper grades in the Fort Dodge Community School District since the construction of Senior High in 1958. It’s the first new school of any kind for the district since the opening of the new Butler School in 2002. The expectations are high.
The new Fort Dodge Middle School, opening for students with the first day of class on Tuesday, Aug. 20, had to be nothing less than stunning.
Situated on 67 acres on North 32nd Street and Dodger Drive, the new school is home to two gymnasiums, a professional quality stage and auditorium, and a cafeteria brimming with natural light. For the first time, the school will bring together all of the district’s more than 1,100 fifth through eighth graders under one roof, sprawling across 190,000 square feet.
The building has more than 1,000 lockers, 250,000 feet (approximately 47 miles) of cable, countless white boards — and zero blackboards. Chalkboard dust is a thing of the past.
Creating a skyline of its own, the new school is second in size only to Senior High, with its 248,300 square feet.
And yet, it only looks big from the outside.
“People keep saying that it looks like a huge school, but once you really get into it, it has the feel of a very small school for what the kids are going to be experiencing,” says Dr. Douglas Van Zyl, superintendent of Fort Dodge Community Schools.
The spaces are designed to be intimate, rather than overwhelming. It is not — as was the tradition of schools built in the early and mid 20th century — one big hallway with rows of individual classrooms on each side. This school is designed to be a “learning community.”
Fifth and sixth graders have their own domain on the first floor, while seventh and eighth graders will be at home on the second floor. Three pods on each floor are home to core classes, while a fourth pod is dedicated to exploratory classes.
“The kids are all in small learning communities. This is not a school of 1,100 where kids are just walking around like a high school. They are truly in what is a small learning environment,” says Van Zyl. “It gives them an opportunity to know their staff members better, and the staff members have an opportunity to know the kids better.”
Middle schools, by definition, are a place of transition.
And while Fort Dodge did indeed adopt the middle school philosophy several years ago, it was able to do so only within the confines of brick and mortar structures designed for junior high and high school purposes at the former Fair Oaks and Phillips middle school buildings.
A true middle school is different. The building design — unique from either elementary or high school design — allows for that time of transition. Middle schools recognize that a student in these years is no longer a child, nor are they yet a young adult about to go out into the world.
It’s an “in between” place.
Each child will spend much of his or her day within a single pod, where they will move about for science, math and language arts and share the collaborative space with their peers. In many ways, each pod functions as a small school within a school.
Students will venture into the school at large only for such things as exploratory classes, music, band, physical education, as well as lunch and use of the media center.
“Almost all their day is going to be within this pod, so they won’t be running through the whole school,” explains Van Zyl.
Inside the pods, carpet tiles buffer sound and cushion footsteps. In the hallways, stained concrete is designed to stand up to 1,100 busy kids on the move. While the carpet tiles are easily replaced when worn, vinyl floors make clean-up even easier in science rooms.
Two central elevators provide easy handicap access, but they are keyed so that only those students and staff who need them may use them. Everyone else will burn a few more calories on the steps.
The media center and cafeteria flank the main entrance at the center of the building, creating a central hub of activity. Shane Albrecht, construction representative for the district, proudly shows off each area.
“On the east, the media center — or library — will have five mobile book shelf areas and fixed books on the wall. It will have space for 9,000 books on the wall. In between all that, we’ll have soft seating located along the windows for kids to be able to grab and sit down and read a book,” he says.
Like the entire school, the media center is completely wireless and loaded with today’s technology. There’s a multi-media space with room for 12 to 16 computers along one wall, and even a green screen in a separate room for film editing classes where students could conceivably create their own middle school news broadcasts.
On the west side of the main entrance, the cafeteria will seat up to 340 kids for each of four lunch shifts. Natural light streams in from a large bank of windows. It will also be available for community functions and is wired with a big screen projector for meetings.
The café is served by a full production kitchen where meals for all of the elementary schools will also be prepared. In all, the kitchen will produce some 2,500 hot meals a day — making it one of the busiest kitchens in Webster County.
To the west of the cafeteria, visitors will find the two gyms, band and vocal music rooms, as well as the auditorium.
As Albrecht explains, the auditorium stage is “full fly,” meaning that props and lighting can lift all the way out of view. A large garage door gives easy access for even very large props to be brought in to the building. And while there is not a true “orchestra pit,” there is a designated area where seats can be removed and a pit created.
The auditorium will seat up to 650 people and is sure to become a popular place for local performances.
As for the need for two gyms, recall that this one building is replacing two buildings, each with its own large gym and auditorium. The main gym here will seat 400, while the smaller gym will seat 200.
A special community and activity entrance will give access to these areas of the building for special events while limiting access to the remainder of the building.
Even on a typical school day, access to the building is easy to monitor. The bus drop-off is on the north, while the parent drop-off and visitor entrance is on the south. Some 72 cameras monitor all the doors, as well as certain other areas in the building. At a designated time, all the doors automatically lock, according to Albrecht,
After that time, visitors will be able to enter the south vestibule where school officials control access throughout the day. The vestibule opens to administrative offices on the left and student services, guidance counselors and support staff on the right but does not give direct access to the school itself without going through one of those layers first.
Albrecht knows every corner of the building and is confident that it’s a place students will love to spend their days.
Now, what about the money? How much did this state-of-the-art facility cost?
One stunning fact of the new middle school is that it’s a $32 million project paid for one penny at a time.
Shoppers paid for it when they bought a new pair of sneakers, digital device or bottle of wrinkle cream, and countless other items as part of a 1 cent state sales tax.
“There was no tax increase for our constituents. This is something that the state put in place many years ago. We thank, not only the people here, but also a lot of other people, not just Iowans, but anyone who comes in and would buy something. It shares the burden,” explains Van Zyl.
And finally, in case anyone is wondering, with Fair Oaks (formerly South Junior High) and Phillips (formerly Senior High) retired and sold, what’s the oldest building left in the district?
Duncombe Elementary was and remains the oldest building. Built in 1912, Duncombe is welcoming students back for its 101st year in August.
How long will this new school last? Albrecht says it’s designed for expansion as community needs grow, and with great maintenance Van Zyl expects a long useful life for a beautiful building.
But it’s still just a building.
The new middle school, stunning as it is, is clearly a fantastic tool that can be used to enhance the quality of education, but Van Zyl steadfastly maintains that it’s the people inside who make the difference.
“I think that anytime you have a great environment and people feel positive about things, it definitely helps. But education is still abound having quality instructors in the classroom, having a quality curriculum, and taking care of kids, making them feel safe and welcome,” he says.
And that’s a goal he has for every building — new or old.