COLUMBIA — Many changes are in store for students at Columbia Independent School this year.
The new Columbia Independent college preparatory campus, which houses preschool through 12th grade, was completed just in time to welcome students back to school on Tuesday. Head of School Scott K. Gibson III said it cost approximately $5 million to purchase the land and refurbish the 62,000-square-foot Toastmaster building located at 1801 N. Stadium Blvd.
Gibson attributed the school's quick renovation to the outpouring of volunteers.
"The volunteer assistance was remarkable," Gibson said. "Many students, parents, trustees and former trustees came out every day to help."
Columbia Independent had previously housed its lower school, grades K-5, in the Sacred Heart Catholic Church's education building located on Waugh Street and the upper school in Hickman Hall on the Stephens College campus.
Hunter Bessey, 11, a sixth-grader at the school, said consolidating the grades into one building made it "easier to find classes because they're not too far from everything, because it’s all one level."
The school held a Sneak Peek Open House on Friday evening to expose the broader community to the new facility, its rigorous academics and significant financial aid to students.
Amber Schilb, a new Columbia Independent parent, said the Open House is a great way for new parents to become acclimated to the school and feel like a part of the Columbia Independent community.
Entertaining is very important and oftentimes underestimated, Gibson said.
"You don't have to do as much fundraising when you entertain people in a relaxed atmosphere because they won't feel like they are being bombarded," he said. "There will be a lot of entertaining this year."
A few highlights of the new facility include spacious, light-filled classrooms, an indoor fitness center, a new-media center, an upper school lounge and a 150-seat cafeteria that has contractedwith Hy-Vee to deliver already-prepared food to the school.
The new campus boasts state-of-the-art science labs, which are large enough for areas dedicated to both laboratory experiments and classroom activities such as studying and lectures. Gibson said that the new labs, which were made possible because of a $250,000 donation, are one of the distinctions of the school.
Karen Davis, a Columbia Independent parent, said it was the high academic standards as well as small class sizes and talented teachers that drew her to the school.
"As a parent, I value that they were able to design a space to meet their educational goals," Davis said.
The new location has allowed the campus to double in both square footage and student capacity, Gibson said. The expansion has set two enrollment records this school year for Columbia Independent. This year's total enrollment was 256 students, compared with 212 last year. The addition of the lower school made for the greatest growth in a single school year.
Gibson said all the changes are advantageous to him as the head of school.
"You know a place more intimately and are allowed more latitude implementing ideas when you start a school from the ground up again," he said.
The academic course load will still be as rigorous as it was in past years, Gibson said. Upper-level students can expect to see advanced placement biology and statistics added to this year's choices.
Other new programs the school will implement this upcoming academic year are a full-day "junior kindergarten" for preschool-age children, new sections in second grade and fifth grade, and an after-school program that will last from 3:15 to 5:30 p.m.
The school also now offers its applications online in hopes of making it more approachable.
"A weakness in the past for CIS is that many people didn't know (the school) had financial aid programs to assist those students who qualified," Admissions Director Keija Parssinen said.
According to its Web site, the school provides more than $400,000 in financial assistance to its students.
John Hager, a science teacher for the lower school, said all the moving and preparation for the upcoming school year at the new campus has felt like a sport.
"You practice, practice, practice, and then finally the big day comes," Hager said.