Today, the Little Rock School District invited media to visit the facility that will soon house a new middle school in West Little Rock.
Beginning this fall (the 2016-17 school year), the 74,000 square foot former Leisure Arts office building on Ranch Road will house classroom space for some 300 sixth graders. Registration for the new seats began last week, LRSD officials said.
However, the office building will be used for classrooms for only one year, explained LRSD Operations Director Wayne Adams. By the 2017-18 school year, the district plans to have completed renovations on the much larger building next door — a 175,000 square foot warehouse that is also part of the former Leisure Arts complex.
LRSD expects the renovated warehouse facility to eventually house 1,200 middle school students, grades 6-8. That would make the school significantly larger than the district’s six other 6-8 grade middle schools. (Dan Whitehorn, the LRSD’s Associate Superintendent for Middle Schools, told me that most of the LRSD’s middle schools serve between 600 and 800 kids.)
At that point, sixth-grade will move into the former warehouse, and the office building will be converted to administrative space for the district, Adams said.
“We have a lot of satellite administrative facilities, like the [Instructional Resource Center] and athletics and safety and security — folks that we could probably consolidate into this building,” he said. It’s unlikely the district’s central offices would move from their current location downtown, however.
As far as renovation of the warehouse goes, Adams said, “we don’t even have preliminary plans at this point … We haven’t picked an architectural firm to even start on it … But we would like to start on it by August of this year to have it possibly finished by August of 2017.”
Meanwhile, preliminary plans for this fall’s temporary sixth-grade classrooms in the office building are being drawn up now. The space is expected to contain 11 classrooms, including special education, art and music classrooms and a gifted and talented classroom. There will be floor-to-ceiling walls dividing the classroom space, although the walls will be “of a temporary nature,” said a district official. Adams said the district plans to begin work on the office building in March.
Because there are no kitchen facilities on site, meals will be prepped at nearby Roberts Elementary, and the front atrium of the Leisure Arts office building will serve as a cafeteria space. That first year, a portion of the warehouse next door will be used as a temporary gym (though the gym space may have to shift around as construction on the warehouse proceeds). Eventually, said Associate Superintendent Sadie Mitchell, a new, separate gym will be built.
Although Mitchell is the district’s superintendent overseeing elementary schools — not middle schools — she’s taking a role in the West Little Rock project. That’s because she’s had more involvement than most LRSD administrators in new construction; most of the LRSD’s facilities projects in recent decades has been at the elementary school level.
The district is working with the city on traffic flow questions, said Adams, including a path for school buses to follow as they come and go.
Adams said the Leisure Arts complex was purchased by Baptist Health previously, which first intended to use it as a new home for its nursing school. The health care provider drew up plans for renovating both buildings to serve as training facilities and office space, but changed its mind on using the property.
The LRSD said a principal for the new middle school should be selected by the end of January, after which hiring will begin for other staff.
LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus’ facilities plan calls for construction of a new high school in Southwest Little Rock at the same time the West Little Rock middle school gears up. That building would presumably have to be built from the ground up, and would not be completed for years to come. A facilities plan originally developed by the elected school board of the LRSD — prior to the district’s January 2015 takeover by the state — called for simultaneous breaking of ground on new facilities on both sides of town, and made any action on a West Little Rock school campus contingent on work also beginning on the Southwest campus. It also required voters to approve passage of a millage increase. In October, Kurrus said he was sticking with the now-dissolved board’s plans to invest in new facilities in both parts of the city, but that it was impractical to bind together the timetables of the two construction projects. Thus, his decision to move forward with the West Little Rock school.