After several months of learning in a construction zone, the end is almost in sight for the 1,300 students of Lake Mountain Middle School in Saratoga Springs.

“I’m not going to lie, it has been challenging at times,” said Mark Whitaker, the school’s principal. “But throughout those challenges people became stronger and it bonded us together.”

The school partially opened in mid-September, four weeks after the traditional first day of school in the Alpine School District.

Delays plagued the 200,000 square foot school since the beginning. The project was bid in January 2018 with the intention that construction would start a month later. Coordination between different entities and other projects in the area delayed the start of construction by four months, leading to structural work being completed during a wet winter. Crews planned to make up the time, but an excessively wet spring made it impossible.

The district announced in August that the school wouldn’t be open for its first day. Instead, students used a hybrid education model that blended online education and optional, in-person meetings at the nearby Vista Heights Middle School until the school partially opened in September.

Thursday, new paint topped the school’s parking lots, students played through a few bars in the band room, and Star Wars characters made up of sticky notes decorated the library’s windows.

The only incomplete part of the school is its auditorium, which is planned to be finished in time for students to perform “Footloose” as their spring musical.

Running a school while part of it remains a construction zone, Whitaker said, has made him reflect on what’s essential.

“I think it’s made us have to be very flexible and considerate not just of each other, but of the construction people,” he said.

That’s meant closing off parts of the school to students and occasionally asking for construction to be paused while students complete a quiz.

“It has been a very clean separation,” Whitaker said. “We have not had a single incident with a student getting into a construction area or getting in trouble that way.”

He said transitioning from the online model to the more traditional, face-to-face instructional model has taken some adjustment. But students have navigated it well, and have become comfortable with turning in assignments online if they’re absent.

The last few weeks have marked a turning point as the remaining classes without whiteboard and projectors have gained them and students have started to get used to the space and each other.

“I feel like by the time we hit Christmas break, the relationships were established,” Whitaker said.

The delays have led to a learning experience for the Alpine School District, which used the hybrid learning model for the first time.

“I think we learned a lot about how we could support students if we were to do more of a blended learning model in the future,” said David Stephenson, a spokesman for the Alpine School District.

Stephenson said it’s a difficult time for construction, with different, large projects happening throughout the state, with weather delays and construction delays. He said the district was optimistic the school was going to open for the traditional first day of school up until the last minute.

“Probably something we learned there is we need to look closely at our timelines and if we are dealing with weather issues, and if we are dealing with a shortage of construction workers and subs and jobs, just all of those things that can happen,” he said.

The situation, he said, has led to community unity.

“Sometimes when people are in the most difficult of situations, it is when they do their best work, when they come together more strongly as a team,” Stephenson said.

He said that Whitaker knows parents by name and has the skills to bring people together.

“Mark is definitely a very strong leader who is calm under pressure,” Stephenson said. “It is like he was almost chosen ahead of time to weather that storm just because of his skill to communicate with others.”

Braley Dodson covers health and education for the Daily Herald.

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