Fresh from a Four Square-filled recess on a brand-new playground, John Nies’ fifth-graders at Grant Elementary School trickled in and sat quietly for read-aloud.
The blacktop and playground equipment, though arguably most important to many of the students, make up only a small part of the extensive $5.6 million addition to Grant. Construction began there in May 2017.
“I really don’t recognize the school from last year,” student D.J. Williams said.
This month, Grant, at Broadway and Garth Avenue, saw the opening of a kitchen and cafeteria, a child drop-off loop on Broadway, three general classrooms, art and music classrooms, two elevators, offices for the school nurse and principal as well as renovations to existing rooms.
“It feels kind of weird sometimes,” another student, Aaliyah Thompson, said. “But I think we’re really lucky to have this new school.”
The two-story addition, the school’s fourth since it opened its doors in 1911, totaled about 16,600 square feet and was built over the 2017-2018 school year.
“It’s like a totally different school,” student Sarah Evlev said.
Fifth-grade teacher Matt Kuensting said he and Nies easily found teaching value in the wide-ranging construction process.
“We took the entire year last year as a learning opportunity,” said Kuensting, who is in his 16th year at Grant.
Kuensting said Nies had a fun idea for helping students during the disruption of their space: They would have students learn how to use cameras and draw on the ongoing construction as a chance to teach the kids about creating a documentary.
“We’re all about capturing things,” principal Jen Wingert said, citing a 2011 scrapbook made by students celebrating the school’s 100-year anniversary.
“John came up with this really great idea, that we would capture the process using students learning how to shoot film and edit it and … tell a story," Wingert said.
Starting near the end of the 2016-2017 school year, Nies and Kuensting enlisted the students who were fifth-graders then to begin documenting the elaborate renovation process. They trained at Columbia Access Television and were encouraged to interview workers from Little Dixie Construction. The teachers did the same with last year's fifth-graders.
Nies and Kuensting said they wanted the documentary to tell a story of progress from the students’ perspectives, as they were the ones actively learning about what was changing at Grant.
“It was just fun to watch go up,” said Nies, who spearheaded the documentary project and now teaches in a new classroom. “Since we did it with this project that sort of wrapped community stuff into it, I just feel like it’s all about community.”
Wingert said the school’s close-knit feel has long defined the “Grant family.” She pointed to the daily before- and after-school recesses that allow parents to gather and talk while their kids play.
“We really believe in active play and the importance of kind of the playground as a really crucial ‘life classroom,’” Wingert said.
Students faced a considerable reduction in playground space throughout the construction process.
“Last week, we had what we call ‘Pack the Playground’ after school where we supplied some simple snacks and some water, just encouraging people to stay and kind of revive that tradition of staying after school and playing,” Wingert said.
For Nies, who is in his 14th year at Grant, the school represents something even more special: He was married on the old playground in 2010. Now, he said, his desk in the new building sits right around the area where he and his bride stood and exchanged vows eight years ago. Still part of the playground are the rock next to which he and his wife took wedding photos and a bench donated for the service with the quote “All you need is love.”
Alums have been part of the process, too.
“We had Grant school alumni from the 1930s come back to view the construction,” Nies said. They're still friends with each other and will be featured in the forthcoming documentary, he said.
Nies said one alum pointed out that the space now used a janitorial closet was their lunchroom — yet another example of how much Grant has changed over the decades.
The construction process began amid a district push to eliminate trailer classrooms. Despite this, Wingert said she asked the district for an additional trailer specifically for music, which was taught from a cart rolled between classes. Grant now has a room designed for music.
Before construction began, Grant was using four trailer classrooms, which Nies said were more than an inconvenience. They were not wheelchair-accessible, didn’t have sinks or bathrooms and caused congestion between the trailers and the main building.
“I think getting rid of the mobile classrooms was key, but within Grant there was a need for space,” Nies said. Students were sometimes forced to work in the hallways.
Additionally, Wingert said, the gymnasium was used as a cafeteria, and classes were booked up to the minute before and after lunch.
Grant has over 300 students from more than 20 countries. The school's attendance area has a distinctive north-south reach: stretching southward to Nifong Boulevard; north almost to West Worley Street; east to Providence Road; and west to West Boulevard.
An outdoor ribbon-cutting dedication ceremony will be held at 8:45 a.m. Sept. 7 to celebrate the completion of the addition. Afterward, students will be invited into the gymnasium for a first look at the trailer for the fifth-graders’ documentary, which is in post-production.
Wingert said the addition, though it represents a large change in the learning environment for students, brought the Grant community together in a familial way.
“It’s great to have kids being able to run and have space and have an environment that is bright and welcoming and ready for them,” Wingert said.
“We’re just — we're just so happy.”
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.