A Vision for Student Learning

Campfires, Caves and Cafés at Hamilton District Christian High

It’s finished! The fences, walls, and caution tape have been taken down and the construction crews have moved out…no more grinding, thumping, and banging…no more stinky smells of plastic and rubber and paint. Aside from a few outstanding pieces of furniture, the new addition on the east end of the school has been completed!

What was considered to be the “dead end” of the school just a few short months ago has recently been transformed into the central “hub” of student activity at Hamilton District Christian High School (HDCH).

On February 17, 2016, I had the privilege of attending a celebration for the many people who, in one way or another, participated in transforming the new addition at HDCH from dream to reality over the past six years. As I looked around at the faces of those gathered to celebrate together, I marvelled at the diversity of individuals and groups of people who have dedicated a significant part of their lives to this project: designers, architects, teachers, administrative leaders, board members, financial supporters and fundraisers—just to name a few.

As we were shown around the spacious new learning spaces that evening, I couldn’t help but reflect back to the board meetings back in 2010, when the idea of changing the blueprint of the existing HDCH building was just that—an idea.  In a world that is constantly moving and changing, it takes a great deal of wisdom for board members to discern where, when, how, and in what direction a school should grow to allow for our students to have the very best of education, while keeping in mind our responsibility to continue to make HDCH an affordable place for our teenaged children to attend. While the vision was becoming clearer, our [then] board chair Chris French wisely shared, “I think this project is going to be more like a marathon, not a sprint”.

He was right. But like any marathon-type of a journey, the reward is worth it. Principal Nathan Siebenga reflected on what it’s like to see a vision become a reality: “It’s like a dream—we had a vision of what we wanted this space to be, and the end product is way better than I could’ve ever imagined. It has far exceeded the vision, and I’m incredibly blessed to be standing in this building tonight.”

The vision for the new space began with three main concepts that Nathan walked us through Campfires, Caves, and Cafés. “At Hamilton District Christian High, we believe in enrolling families, not just one type of student,” he described. “When you have a family, you have all sorts of learners…and no matter how you learn, we want to make sure there’s a spot for you [here].” The concept of the three C’s encapsulated this vision for creating spaces for all of these different types of learners.

Campfires are places where people like to sit around in a circle and just be together—talking, philosophizing, and sharing stories. Already, some of the spaces in the new addition have become campfire spaces. In the window corner, students sit on the benches to read, study and socialize. When the tree comes in, there will be armor stones placed around it for students to sit and talk—another campfire space. Some of the new furniture that is still coming in will also create more campfire areas both downstairs and upstairs near the windows.

Caves are another important type of space that are uniquely different. “When I think of caves, I think about quiet spaces; places to go when you want to reflect. I think of King David, who went to be in caves when he needed a quiet place, and that’s where he would write Psalms,” Nathan shared. Several new areas have also been created for quiet reflection in the new addition, including transparent offices, glass-enclosed working areas, and upstairs bunkies. These spaces offer a haven for those who prefer quieter spaces to sit, work, or have private conversations.

Cafés are a familiar space to most teenaged students today—a place to plunk down your laptop, grab a coffee or muffin and read the paper. These things are already happening around the stunning wooden tables in the new addition. Students gather in these common areas to mingle, chat, and connect with each other within an area that one can’t help but sense the connection to both creation and the Creator.

“I feel like the wood counter is like our mission statement in one piece of wood,” Nathan reflected: “Cultivating character through learning for a life of service to God.”

The concept of providing different learning spaces—the three C’s—have been beautifully captured by the designers of the new addition. Drew Hauser and his design team worked tirelessly to move these concepts into a design that would push the boundaries of what education can be like for students today.

Drew thanked the board and membership for the confidence that they placed in his team to put together and implement the design for the new addition at HDCH. He shared, “We really loved the experience! This is the kind of project that people in offices fight to be a part of—where you can think about what education can continue to grow to be like in the future.”

Moving from concepts and designs to bricks and stone is another giant leap in the process—one that was taken on by the Schilthuis crew. Tim Schiltuis, a former student at HDCH, was a part of this team. He described the process from a builder’s perspective: “Nathan sees three C’s, but I see, ‘How am I supposed to build that?’ or ‘Why are we doing it this way?’, and ‘Where are the dimensions?’”

Being a part of creating new learning spaces for students at Hamilton District Christian High was especially meaningful for Tim. “My sister started attending this school in 1995, and for seventeen years after that, there were Schilthuis’ going here. So we have a kind of legacy here.” He continued to say, “I’m proud of this new addition that we were a part of. Someday I can tell my kids that I helped build this and that I was a part of the way that this school teaches and uses spaces for learning.”

Teachers and educators at HDCH were equally excited to share how these new learning spaces have already begun to influence the culture in the building for themselves and for the students. Richard VanEgmond has been teaching at HDCH since 1996 and has been a part of the many changes that have been happening along the way. He currently leads the Venture and Coop programs for students, connecting students to the community outside the school. He commented how the new space will be instrumental in opening up the school to the community, and also vice-versa—that the school has a new visibility to the community, where they can see into the school and have a glimpse of the great things that are happening there. He shared, “There is a tremendous amount of excitement amongst staff members about the new possibilities and ways that we can bless kids in the new learning spaces that are available in the addition.”

James Apers, head of student services at Hamilton District Christian High for the past 18 years, echoed this excitement. “The places we previously had for students to ask for help have always felt a bit clinical, and were not always a place where students felt comfortable,” he shared. “It was a struggle for us to help students who needed certain measures of support because they often felt segregated and isolated from the rest of the school.” He went on to comment that one of the most beautiful things about this end of the school now is that it is no longer a “place apart”, but it is a place where student support is integrated into the fabric of the school. “We can talk about beams, we can talk about wood, we can talk about ventilation—I guess some people do,” he laughed, “but really, in the end, it’s about the kids. It’s the kids that are flourishing in this space, and we get to ride along with them…and that’s really cool.”

After only a couple of short weeks of having the new addition open to students, this flourishing is already becoming evident to all who take a moment to  have a look at what is happening there. Nathan reflected, “I can already say that what I’ve seen is changing the culture in the way that we interact with all the learners in the building—it’s exciting!” Equally exciting is that the project could be completed within budget and that it could be completed without debt. Nathan took a moment to thank those who had led the fundraising for the project, including all those who stepped up to take on the project and encouraged them along the way.

The celebrations of the evening provided a place for reflection and for celebration, and I sensed that they also encouraged the momentum to continue as we begin to look forward to the next phase of improvements that Nathan, Drew and his team have already begun to dream about. I think Drew summed it up perfectly, and his excitement was shared by all who had gathered to celebrate that evening: “If this is the start, I can’t wait to get to the next steps!”

Carla Alblas, Former Board Member
Hamilton District Christian School