STEM school opens after $5.2M renovation of historic building

Students walked the halls of The Dome on Wednesday, the first time classes have been held in the historic former South High School since it closed seven years ago.

The Global Impact STEM Academy capped a $5.2 million effort to open inside a portion of the 104-year-old building on Wednesday with the first day of school for students.

The science, technology, engineering and math school is in its third year, but its first at the new, 58,000-square-foot location. About 260 students are enrolled from 14 districts in five counties.

The school was previously located inside Shull Hall at Clark State Community College. It began with 50 freshmen in 2013. The school’s goal is to prepare students for jobs in the agriculture and bio-sciences industries.

The building at 700 S. Limestone St. has been transformed into a college and career readiness hub, thanks to $23 million total investment, including from a state Straight A grant, state capital funds, private donations and matching local money.

The building, now called the Springfield Center of Innovation: The Dome, will also house the Greater Springfield Career ConnectEd Center and Clark State’s Food Science and Technology Program.

During the first week of school, the students work with advisers and peers on team-building activities, communication skills and design challenges, GISA Director Joshua Jennings said. On Monday, they’ll go directly into their classes, he said.

“It’s a great way to just get students not only engaged, but make them feel comfortable in a unique environment before the school year gets started,” he said.

Jennings was nervous about logistics on the first day, including bus drop-off in the morning, but it went smoothly. Earlier this week, the school produced videos to show students and parents the ins-and-outs of the new facility, including where to drop off and how to come in the building.

The students were blown away upon seeing the facility for the first time, Jennings said.

“Everything is state of the art,” Jennings said. “The building is majestic. It’s a really cool feeling for everybody, not just for the school, but for everybody who is here in downtown Springfield.”

Last year GISA had 150 students and school leaders said it needed about 250 students to remain self-sufficient.

A few more students may register this week, likely increasing enrollment to about 270 students. That exceeded its goal to attract 100 additional students this year, Jennings said.

The school has about 20 staff members and is at capacity in terms of specific programs, Jennings said.

Before the day began, Jennings asked the students who had been with the program all three years to stand up — a group of about 30 to 40 students. It shows both the demand of the program and what it took to get to this point, he said.

“It’s a bit surreal,” said Jennings, a Springfield native who graduated from Northeastern High School.

It’s great the community renovated the building to its full potential for students, said Drew Speas, a 15-year-old sophomore who lives in the Clark-Shawnee school district.

“It’s amazing,” Speas said. “I’m so excited to be here.”

Over the past two weeks, the school and construction crews have been putting the finishing touches on the facility, Jennings said. He praised Kapp Construction and architect Steve Sharp for their work on the building.

“They’ve bent over backwards to make sure we have everything we need for the first day of school,” Jennings said.

The environment is much different than that for traditional learning, said Claire Spangler, a first-year intervention specialist who taught at London City Schools last year.

“It’s a very different learning environment, very different for the kids, lots of activities, lots of movement,” Spangler said. “The kids are really excited to be here and we’re feeding off of that energy. It’s great.”

The butterflies were there for Spangler on Wednesday morning, she said.

“I was telling the other teachers we felt the same way the freshmen feel in the cafeteria in the morning,” Spangler said. “It’s such an amazing opportunity and we’re all excited to be here.”

Matt Ehlinger has taught math at the school since it opened in its small space at Clark State.

“It’s pretty amazing being in this building,” he said. “The space, the technology, it’s just awesome.”

It’s nice to put it back to good use, said Ehlinger, who played basketball against South while a student at Tecumseh.

“Hopefully, it will help to revive the area and the community,” Ehlinger said.

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