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Honoring Tradition While Leading Change

On September 1st, students and staff of St. Mary Catholic Middle School strode into a new 59,000-square-foot, state-of-the art middle school. The new building is a welcome change from the aging Seton Catholic Middle School the school system previously inhabited. Early in the pre-construction process, the system’s project leadership team established two top-priority project drivers: (1) to create an educational environment that promotes and celebrates true academic excellence and (2) to ground the building design in traditions of the Catholic faith.

To promote academic excellence, the new middle school plan incorporated many aspects of modern learning environments. The classrooms were constructed in “pods” containing three to four large classrooms filled with natural light. Adjacent to the classrooms are open collaborative learning spaces, filled with flexible furniture to be utilized for individual or small-group learning. Each area is separated by glass walls, creating visual transparency and allowing staff to simultaneously oversee multiple groups of students.

St. Mary Catholic Middle School was thoughtfully designed as a symbolic structure with a strong Catholic identity. Catholic architecture uses three primary metaphors to explain and understand the relationship between God and the church. These three themes—body, city and temple—are deeply interwoven into the design and layout of the school.

The body houses the soul. While the gymnasium will be used for exercise, its benefits reach far beyond physical education. Physical activity increases memory and concentration and improves mood, classroom behavior, and academic performance. The city is a gathering place for all, and is represented by the commons. The warm and inviting design encourages people to gather. The temple is dedicated to worship and learning and therefore the chapel and classroom areas will be used to enrich the mind, body, and soul with scripture and academics.

Since the doors opened in September, students and staff have fully embraced their new environment. Principal Mike Zuleger is invigorated by the students’ excitement. Several students have shared with him how easy it is to get up in the morning because they love coming to school.

Social Studies Teacher, Tom Kropidlowski, has been an educator in the school system for 26 years and is excited about utilizing the new space to its fullest potential. “In middle schools, flexibility is key; the most notable change is the physical structure and layout which create flexibility,” said Kropidlowski. He believes the open space generates mobility and inspires creativity within the students, and students agree. Gianna Gallucci and Ellie Dimmer, both 8th grade students, said, “In Seton, the classrooms were spread throughout the school. The new building has collaboration spaces that make learning fun!” When asked what the best part of the new building is, Dimmer responded, “The collaborative spaces, it’s cool to have a space where our whole class can come together.” Gallucci added, “I love the flexible furniture, it encourages collaboration and teamwork.”

Two students working on laptops in a collaboration space

Ellie Dimmer (left) and Gianna Gallucci (right) utilizing the collaboration space in the new St. Mary Middle School.