Columbus schools to welcome students in 2011

COLUMBUS — Construction on Columbus Municipal School District’s new middle school has lost six weeks worth of progress. Officials expect the building to be complete by November 2010, months later than the August 2010 grand opening predicted in the project’s infancy.

Rick Williams, senior project manager for West Brothers Construction in Columbus, attributes the delay to an unusually rainy fall and winter. Lowndes County has received an estimated 20-30 inches above average rainfall for the year, according to the National Weather Service.

The extra precipitation has derailed hopes to have the new school completed ahead of schedule. But foresight and 24-hour days have kept the $19.1 million project on track.

“We have really battled some weather,” said Williams. “We’d be a lot further along if it weren’t for the weather.”

As it stands, construction is moving forward about 50-acre site on Mississippi Highway 373 because West Brothers trucked in tons of crushed granite, marble and milled asphalt which were spread over the ground months ago.

The crushed rock sinks into the mud and clay to create stable ground for construction vehicles to maneuver.

“We spread it over the entire site,” Williams said. “Everything that does not have a building on it has (crushed rock) as a base. When we’re done we’ll clean everything up, stockpile it and use it again.”

Williams and West Brothers expect to be done by the target date of Nov. 1, 2010, set when construction began in April, thanks to some long nights. Between 80-100 workmen can be found at the site from sun up to sun down. For an average of three nights each week, the lights come on and work continues around the clock.

The middle school is using a spoke design, with a central commons area and sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade halls stemming, like a spoke, from the central area.

“The building has a very significant central space,” said Chris Morrow, of Pryor and Morrow Architects. “It lets you stand at one location and see down every corridor. That’s primarily for security and management.”

Each wing of the school will function as a self-contained unit with its own teacher resource room, conference room, administrative offices and assistant principal. Approximately 1,100 students will populate the 54 classrooms, but the school is being built in anticipation of enrollment growth.

The construction project contract fixed at about $19.1 million. The remainder of the $22 million in bonds, passed in January 2008 to pay for the school, went toward purchasing the property and developing the land for utilities such as sewer and electric.

The school is also being built with an eye toward technology and enrichment. For example, classrooms are being built with recessed spaces in their walls for electric smartboards, which used to rest on rolling stands.

“We wanted a facility where we were able to integrate technology much easier,” said school superintendent Del Phillips. “In the older buildings like Hunt (Intermediate School) and Lee (Middle School), it’s really difficult to integrate some of the electrical demands when the buildings were built 40 years ago and only have one electric plug-in per room.”

The construction materials are also more energy efficient to cut down on heating and cooling costs.

Besides the standard classrooms, the new school boasts six technology classrooms, two science labs, a production studio, an art studio, a dance studio, a music/choral studio, a band studio and a drama classroom.

The auditorium will be built with a flat floor and removable seats to serve multiple functions.

The gymnasium includes a weight room. The cafeteria will offer multiple food stations.

Each wing will have its own bus area so grades won’t have to mix. And only two entrances offer access to the school for greater security.

“It’s a very student-oriented plan,” said Morrow. “I think the building will express itself from the interior as to what it’s about. I’m going on over 26 years (in architecture) and haven’t done a school with as many features as this school has.”

When Columbus’ sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders take over their new in January 2011, Lee — which houses grades seven and eight — and Hunt — which houses grades four and five — both be closed.

Sixth grade will be housed at the new middle school, along with grades seven and eight.

Fifth grade will be placed the elementary schools, each of which currently houses grades kindergarten through four. Stokes-Beard Elementary Technology and Communication Magnet School also has a pre-kindergarten program.

While the district will incur some costs in adding a grade level at current K-4 schools, Phillips said the arrangement will be academically advantageous, eliminating one of the district’s school transitions.

“We wanted to change the grade configuration because children transitioning schools every two years is not conducive to academic growth. This is well researched and its the best configuration for a middle school,” he said.

The Lee facility likely will be sold, Phillips said, because it’s in a good commercial location. He said the Hunt school has been discussed as a possible replacement location for the school district’s central offices.

Jason Browne/The Commercial Dispatch