By Kelli Ameling and Cory Smith
Outside Belding High School on the first day of classes, a steady rain greeted students Tuesday morning as they trudged through mud and the wet elements, entering from the side entrance of a school that is still under heavy construction both externally and internally.
But inside Belding High School, in a brand new gymnasium filled with the entire student body singing the school fight song as the marching band played on, there was no evidence of the cloudy, rainy and muddy conditions that remained outside.
Gathered inside the new “Redskins Arena” for a back-to-school assembly, students old and new marveled at the state-of-the-art gymnasium that was completed over the spring and summer, as well as the adjacent towering lobby area, filled with windows from top to bottom.
“It was just mind blowing, really,” said sophomore Fred Farleigh, 15, of stepping into the high school. “It looks like a totally different place. I made a reference to this place as Van Andel Arena (in Grand Rapids) because of all of the windows. It’s just huge, I really like what they’ve done.”
Farleigh’s opinion was shared by many, as was evident by the energy displayed from the hundreds of students in the gymnasium, even at the early hour of 7:30 a.m.
“(Belding High School) is a good place to come to during the day,” Farleigh said. “Kids can get excited because it’s brand new and they can brag to other people about their new school.”
The gymnasium, which features an indoor track, adjacent weight room, several courts and bleacher seating that forms a “U” shape around the center court, was constructed as part of a $38.8 million bond levy approved by voters in 2010. Included in that bond is also the new auditorium, which will be completed in October.
Welcoming students back for the 2012-2013 school year was High School Principal Brett Zuver, who delivered a lasting message for each student to take with them as they left the assembly and started their first class of the school year.
“I want you to work at getting better at everything you do this year, in the classroom, out of the classroom and as a person,” Zuver said. “You get four short years here in high school and it flies by. Work hard at everything you do and pursue excellence with a passion.”
With so much left to be finished at the school, paraprofessional and freshman sideline cheer coach Rachelle Ostrander told students to look past the current conditions of the school, as well as the current status of their own lives.
“We want you to think beyond,” Ostrander said. “You need to think beyond to how that homework assignment you are currently working on is going to help you in the future. You need to think beyond to what’s going to happen after you leave this building. That can all start when you are a freshman.”
Zuver said being able to welcome students into a gymnasium that most of them had never seen before was a great way to start the first day of school.
“It was neat to see, as the students walked in, watching their jaws dropping and eyes bugging out a bit, because most of them had never seen the facility from the inside before,” he said. “Everything facility-wise is going to be, if not new, different. Even just the way students may need to get to class because we have a lot of internal construction going on, so you may not be able to go to point A to point B like you used to be able to.”
According to Zuver, the original entryway to the high school will remain under construction for “a few more weeks” and has advised students and parents entering the school to do so from the new north entrance next to the gymnasium.
Today, students will receive their own iPads to use for the school year.
“The iPad one-to-one initiative is really, really exciting,” Zuver said. “I know our teachers are really excited and a little nervous, as are a lot of parents and students, but it’s very different and will influence and change the way a lot of instruction is done.”
Despite the ongoing construction and many changes to the school, Zuver said students and staff at the high school area ready for the challenge.
“There’s going to be growing pains along the way but the end product is going to be so worth it,” he said. “It’s just something we have to work together on, endure, and help each other through.”
Meanwhile, students also returned to class — and new and improved facilities — Tuesday at neighboring Greenville Public Schools.
“This has been one of the smoothest starts in my memory,” Superintendent Pete Haines said.
With a large upgrade the school received through a bond project, Haines said the construction projects are mostly completed with only minor details remaining.
“Our construction projects have given us access to update facilities and safety measures,” he said.
Part of the construction took place at Baldwin Heights Elementary School, which added a bus drive for students to safely get on the bus without having to dart between vehicles and oncoming traffic.
“I am very pleased,” said Baldwin Heights Elementary School Principal Michael Walsh. “I love the new bus drive and playground equipment.”
At the end of the school day Tuesday, Walsh and other Greenville Public Schools employees watched and helped students get onto buses and directed parents to the new parking area.
At Baldwin Heights, parents will be able to pick up students on the west and east side of the building. The front of the school is strictly for bus pick up and drop-off.
Walsh said he enjoys being back at school with the students.
“It’s the best being back with the kids,” Walsh said. “It makes all the summer work and late nights worth it.”
He said he was able to make it to all the classrooms Tuesday and students seemed to enjoy being back to school.
Haines agreed with Walsh about the feeling of excitement of having students back in the classrooms.
“The many children I encountered seemed eager to be back,” Haines said. “It is so good to have them with us again.”