Activity on the main floor of the new James Clemens High School was abuzz Friday afternoon as school officials and contractors worked to put the finishing touches on the $58 million facility on the Limestone County side of County Line Road.
In classrooms, chairs were turned over on top of desks. In common areas, plush chairs were covered in plastic to keep the dust off. Construction workers rolled boxes of new teacher desks on dollies, while teachers and staff chatted with officials with Madison City Schools.
By Aug. 20, however, the work will be wrapped up, for the most part, as the doors will open to more than 1,200 students on the first day of school. The school’s 59 teachers report on Monday.
While it’s easy to classify the 2,000-student capacity JCHS as just a high school, the school’s staff and leaders with Madison City Schools describe it more as a 21st-century learning environment. The enormity of the campus alone may lead more parents and students to think it’s more akin to a small college, and they wouldn’t be completely wrong.
“We’re about preparing students for the future,” said Kelli Nichols, an instructional partner at the school and an Athens resident. “There are no lockers here, because colleges don’t have lockers.”
Part of preparing students for the future and a college career, she said, is embracing — and encouraging — new technology. Though students will use traditional textbooks, teachers will also encourage students to bring digital devices like tablets and laptop computers.
When asked if allowing students to bring distractions into the classroom would be a deterrent to learning, JCHS Principal Dr. Brian Clayton said it’s about teaching students how to be “digital citizens.”
“We have so many avenues to use technology,” he said. “If you’re a teacher in this building, you have to learn how to deal with it.”
Though students will have wireless Internet access, they will be restricted to some websites like Facebook.
“Sometimes it’s harder to keep (technology) out,” Nichols said. “It’s really easier to embrace it.”
With 328,000 square feet, it’s possible some students may feel lost on the first day of school. Even Nichols and Clayton both admitted it’s possible some teachers may find themselves lost.
Because the school’s athletic teams will be dubbed “the Jets,” many of JCHS’s common areas will have aviation themes. The mid-level concourse will be called “the landing,” while the school store will be called “the hangar.”
Inside the college-style cafeteria, three massive ceiling fans resembling jet engine turbines are attached to the ceiling. Each shiny silver blade of the fan features a dorsal fin so the blades also resemble airplane wings.
The innermost wall of the cafeteria also features 12-flat screen televisions that can show separate programs or the same program across all 12 screens.
The school will have two lunch periods of 45 minutes each, so about 500 to 600 students will eat together at one time. There won’t be enough booths and tables in the cafeteria to accommodate that many diners, however, so students will be able to go outside to eat if they so choose.
The cafeteria will feature five food kiosks, including home cooking, Mexican cuisine, Asian cuisine, pizza and pasta and chicken. The lower floor of “the landing” will also feature a coffee kiosk manned by developmentally challenged students as a means of honing job skills for the future.
The school will also have traditional features like a gymnasium and library, but it will also feature a state-of-the-art lecture hall called the “Harvard Room” and an 800-seat indoor amphitheater that will also double as a tornado shelter.
“Now we’ve just got to start cleaning up and completing some landscape projects,” said D. Kevin Gunnison, senior construction manager with Volkert Inc.
Volkert has built schools all over the state, but Gunnison described JCHS as the biggest he’s worked on.
“It’ll be a happy occasion when the school opens, but it will be sad because I won’t get to work with the good people I’ve met here,” he said.