The surroundings looked quite different for students at Independence Middle School as they began the 2022-23 school year last month.

Stages of a $42 million renovation project at the school at 2807 Bethel Church Road had taken shape, something the district's administration stressed was their goal.

"The big unknown is always materials and supplies, but everything has been coming in on time," said Dr. Zeb Jansante, Bethel Park assistant superintendent. "We're really encouraged. Things are on track to get this building through the course of the year."

The project involves reconfiguring the school to include sixth grade in addition to the seventh- and eighth-grade students already occupying the building.

"The opportunity is very exciting for our community," said Superintendent Dr. James Walsh. "All the teachers that they've come to love and appreciate ... are going to be there."

Work includes an entire renovation to include a separate sixth-grade wing on the first floor, a new administration suite, a secured vestibule to improve control of access to the building, two new elevators, a new world language wing and accessibility improvements throughout the school.

Also, the entire building is receiving upgraded mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, as well as all new finishes to improve the quality of the spaces aesthetically and acoustically. 

"We're reinventing the school to meet the needs of the learners," Jansante said. "We're preparing kids for 21st-century learning and providing the education kids need to be successful. Most career opportunities for kids haven't even been invented. We want kids to be creative learners and be able to adapt to the future. We're encouraged that this facility will engage and enhance that aspect.

Jansante explained that the classrooms are constructed in three-room pods, and teams share those rooms and teachers "so that (students) know their teachers really well." 

Seventh- and eighth-graders started the school year at Independence Middle School, but the sixth-grade students are not expected to come to IMS until 2025 – the expected completion date of a new K-5 building at the current Neil Armstrong Middle School at 5800 Murray Avenue.

No decision has been made regarding what will be done with the current Neil Armstrong Middle School Building.

Classrooms in the new sixth-grade wing will be used by IMS teachers when renovation takes place in their classrooms. There also will be temporary classrooms set up in the school's library.

"That gives us the ability to transfer classrooms into a new space, while we renovate the previous space," said Stephen Reckhart of SitelogIQ, on-site construction manager, on a video released updating the progress of the project. "The goal is when you're ready to have sixth grade, you'll have a completely renovated building."

As finishing touches were put on the administration suite in time for the start of the school year on Aug. 25, the sixth-grade classroom wing was targeted for completion in October. Once classes begin, construction will take place during after-school hours. 

The renovation of the rest of the building is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

"It's a lot of change. It's going to be awesome," said Racquel Sutton, school principal. "The signage and the accessibility of the building is huge."

"We saved some of the old artwork," Jansante added. "We're going to put them back into the project."

This project is part of the district's master facilities plan, which was developed following an 18-month process that included a feasibility study and numerous public meetings and discussions with internal and external stakeholders.

"The plan is students first and 21st-century learning," Jansante said. "All of this has to be done in conjunction with students being prepared to go out in the world and be ready to go."

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