Behind the Scenes of the Learning Commons renovation into Dream Center

Drew Hoffmaster | The Chronicle

The dream of giving students a collaborative innovation space is finally becoming a reality within Mason City Schools (MCS).

After ten years of planning and work, the remodeling of the Mason High School (MHS) Learning Commons, formerly the media center, has begun. MCS is turning the Learning Commons into what they are calling a Dream Center. 

Once complete, the Dream Center will include a maker space, esports lounge, performance stage and library. The Cosmic Cafe will move into the space. The remodeling also extends outside of the center, as parts of the B-pod will be remodeled this summer, converting locker space into flexible student seating.

MCS’s goal is to finish the Dream Center before school begins next year, with a tentative date to finish by August 7. The Dream Center is not going to be the only one in the district. Currently, the Dream Center in Mason Early Childhood Center is complete, but plans have been made to start on Dream Centers in the other schools.

The evolution of the Learning Commons into the Dream Center is a reflection of advancing technology. MCS Superintendent Johnathan Cooper said that having a huge library is not needed anymore with students being able to easily access information and texts through online services, including school-issued Chromebooks.

“The first yea [the district] brought me over, the Learning Commons was just transitioned from a library to adapt to the times,” Cooper said. “In the last few years, with the same spirit, we wanted to make a collaborative space.”

Cooper said the goal of the MHS Dream Center is to be a space for students that is run by students. MCS’s goal is to use the space to give students opportunities to learn skills and experiences needed to grow to be more independent and successful.

“Students will have ownership in [businesses and areas in the Dream Center] that are designed by the staff and teachers,” Cooper said. “The Dream Center in the High School is gonna be the  premier model of what we want student experiences to be.”

The hope for the space is to also promote student collaboration. The current plan is to have the space open to the public for people to use during after-school hours to connect. Cooper said the details on how the public would enter the space but the administration is excited to see how it will work out.

“With all of these amazing programs in [the Dream Center], the space becomes really engaging, a wonderful place to kind of connect with everybody,” Cooper said.

According to the MCS Public Information Officer Tracey Carson, the cost of the project was approved on October 24, 2023 for $2,079,000 by the school board. The funds for the project are coming from the sale of Western Row Elementary for $6.5 million in 2020, and unused money allocated by the state during the height of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

“We didn’t have to go to the taxpayers because our boards in the past have been very mindful,” Carson said. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve had a long-time commitment to pay as we go and to do stuff wisely.”

These Dream Centers are a part of the district’s Journey to 2030 plan initiative, which is intended to help MCS innovate for the future. According to Carson, the Dream Center will let the district continue to improve every student’s education long-term.

“We’re investing in [our students], making sure that our students have extraordinary experiences and opportunities,” Carson said. “With this, we are not just investing for today but also for 20 years from now.”

Carson said she wants the Dream Center to be a resource for students to be able to explore their creative interests. The Dream Center will present students with these opportunities through the MHS’s Experiential Learning Program, Cosmic Cafe, and Maker Space.

“We want everyone to pick whatever path is right for them,” Carson said. We really want kids to have a lot of robust opportunities that interest them which is why we are having things like the Marker Space and Esports Lounge.”

Planning this experience for kids has been challenging, MCS Chief Operations Manager Todd Petrey said he has had to work closer with the staff and students on this construction project for the school than any project before.

“We’re really driven by the students,” Petrey said. “The ideas of how the [Dream Center] will be broken down has been done with students and staff. In the end, our goal is to deliver the product that staff and students want.”

The construction of the Dream Center aims to be able to uphold the usual Mason quality. Petrey said that keeping up the quality has been difficult. Still, he has been working closely with the construction crew, electrician, and community to ensure the quality while guaranteeing the safety of students.

“Things have been better after COVID, but we are still struggling to companies to do the work is more challenging than ever before, and of course doing the work while kids are still at school takes a lot of work. We want to keep the kids safe and not hinder their education.”

Even though the construction has been difficult, Petrey said he is excited to get to see the final product. He feels it will be interesting to see the unique ways staff and students use the Dream Center.but now students learn by hand and experience.

“Part of the ultimate goal is to deliver something that engages the kids, so they want to be there,” Petrey said. “[The Dream Center] gives them an outlet they can enjoy, plus get their work done while exploring other areas. I can’t wait to give what kids will need to be prepared for the future.”

The Dream Center was designed to reflect modern methods of learning. Vice President of VSWC Jim Voorhis is leading the renovation project. Voorhis said 20 years ago students used to learn from books and worksheets, but now students learn by hand and experience.

“There is no such thing as independent collaborative learning now,” Voorhis said. “[Students] now learn using new technologies and a lot of hands-on on-type things which is why there are a lot of maker space-type spaces, coffee shop areas, and work opportunities.”

All of these opportunities and increasing material and labor costs have caused the cost of the remodeling to be $2,079,000. 

Currently, anything MCS builds has a projected cost of $400 per square foot. The remodeling is a little cheaper, being about $150-250 per square foot, because the renovation did not expand the building.

“Since it’s the community’s money, we do not pay for more work than necessary,” Voorhis said. “We make sure, [the community] is getting the lowest deal.”

The project is also still being planned out as it progresses. Voorhis said they could not plan out furniture yet because companies may not make the same type once they are finished, and the crews may run into timeline issues.

“Although everything is scoped out and planned, there’s always something that happens,” Voorhis said. “The walls did not frame out like it was drawn, so we have to meet and look at how we can change that while still keeping the aesthetics of the project.”

The high school’s administration is excited about the finished product. MHS Assistant Principal Brandon Rompies said he thinks the space will serve as a cool alternative place for students to get work done during the school day.

“Teachers and students are looking for [collaborative workplaces] for students to use,” Rompies said. “You walk in the hallways and you see kids out in the hallways hoping for different things. There should be a space where people can collaborate, done in the spirit of innovation.”

Junior Kieran Niska is excited by the remodeling of the Learning Commons into a Dream Center. He said he is excited about the brand-new opportunities the Dream Center presents, especially with the Makerspace and Library.

“I think the [Dream Center] will be a cool place to hang out because it has a library,” Niska said.  “I never really got to use the middle school library, and the addition will finally give me a chance.”

To sophomore Lily Altier, she likes that the school is gathering all of these amazing features into a place that will be accessible to students easily.

“[The Dream Center] will be a nice spot for everyone to chill and do multiple things at once,” Altier said. “Everyone will be doing different things all together. Everyone will have some many cool things to do.”

Students, including Junior Alex Olegnowicz, can get excited about how the Dream Center will present students with a safe place to meet up during after-school hours. He said he is thrilled to see this new addition to the school.

“I think the ability for students to get together during after-school hours and work on projects together while having access to high-quality equipment and technology is a great idea,” Olegnowicz said. “It will allow students to capitalize on time after school.”