TAMPA — Middle schoolers at the Academy of the Holy Names greeted their newly renovated classrooms with excitement Wednesday morning.
They were about to begin a new adventure in learning, the result of years of planning and millions of dollars spent to completely update their 90-year-old school on Bayshore Boulevard.
On Tuesday, workmen were still putting the finishing touches on walls and lighting and landscaping. Teachers were huddled in planning rooms or meeting with their curriculum teams to prepare for the next day's opening.
The two floors that used to house the Academy's media center and arts program were unrecognizable from the previous fall.
Walls were torn out to create new "flexible open spaces" filled with easily moveable desks and tables on wheels, ergonomic chairs and stools, and colorful padded couches and benches — all to facilitate what Elementary/Middle School Principal Bridgid Fishman calls "collaborative learning."
The essence of the program, Fishman says, is to have a comfortable space that can be rearranged in minutes to meet the needs of a particular lesson or groups of students.
"As educators, we know there is not just one way we teach kids," Fishman said. "Flexible spaces allow us to reach kids in different ways."
At different times of the day, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders might circle their tables and chairs to take notes as a teacher presents a new concept in math or science.
Or, they might break up into groups to research and practice a previous lesson.
Others might gather in a media space to work on their iPads or Macbooks or show their work via a built-in overhead projector.
Each day the students come to school, they may find the furniture completely rearranged in preparation for that day's lessons.
"Flexible learning spaces makes teaching so much easier" Fishman says. "The kids' engagement is so much higher."
Mary Alice Lopez, an eighth grade literature and writing teacher, began several years ago helping to develop the new teaching methods.
"Flexible spaces give kids the opportunity to work collaboratively, to make decisions and solve problems. They are not just learning from us, they are learning from each other," Lopez says, likening herself to a coach who helps teach children the skills they need for the game of life.
"We are committed to setting up our kids for success, for setting expectations and holding them to it," Fishman says. "With our new program, we are seeing huge emotional and social growth in our kids."
The idea for changing how the Academy teaches children began about six years shortly after Art Raimo took over as president.
"He challenged us to think about new ways to better meet the needs of our kids, about how to prepare them for jobs that we don't yet know will exist," Fishman said.
Shortly after he arrived, Raimo joined a group of area independent school leaders to tour a new educational space at Hillel Academy in north Tampa.
The area was designed by a parent, who just happened to be a principal at Fielding Nair International, an architectural firm noted for designing innovative 21st Century educational spaces.
Raimo was inspired and quickly worked to gain support from his school's parents and alumni.
Six years and $22-million dollars later, the Academy of the Holy Names has a new parking garage for high school students; a new Center for the Arts that collaborates with Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall; a Heritage Center highlighting the school's history and founding order, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary; and now a completely redesigned middle school.
Next summer, Raimo hopes to start work on renovating the main building to redesign teaching spaces for the school's 450 high school students. Creating new flexible spaces for about 250 elementary students will quickly follow, he says.
The cost for the final phase of renovations is about $12 million, bringing the total estimated cost to $34-million.
So far, Academy has raised more than $5 million through donations and has borrowed the balance to finance its expansion projects.
In October, Raimo plans to begin a major campaign to raise additional needed capital to complete the remaining renovation projects in the school's master plan.
"We are all clearly very excited about what is happening at the Academy of the Holy Names," Raimo says. People may see an old building here and figure that what is going on inside is equally as old and outdated. But it is just the opposite of that. There are some really creative things happening inside."
Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at email@example.com.