By Rachel V. Goodspeed
MONS, Belgium -- As middle school students sang "This Land is Your Land," U.S. and NATO officials turned the first of many shovels that will bring a new educational campus to the SHAPE community.
Representatives from SHAPE, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District, Department of Defense Dependants Schools-Europe, Belgian Federal Government and City of Mons marked the beginning of the first phase of construction on new facilities that will replace the aging SHAPE American and International Schools with a groundbreaking ceremony Jan. 11 on the SHAPE International School grounds.
"Today celebrates the beginning of a new era of SHAPE International School," said Benoit Davin, SHAPE International School's director general. "This is the result of 10 years of patience and persistence. It is a dream come true for every pupil and every teacher."
The roughly $170 million endeavor, funded collectively by DoDDS-E and NATO, will bring new elementary, middle and high schools for DoDDS students and new classrooms for the international school.
The SHAPE International School was established in 1967 with an initial enrollment of roughly 1,400 students, according to SHAPE officials. Today there are more than 2,500 students attending the SHAPE American and International Schools.
"Military children overseas have a unique opportunity for cultural exchange during their intellectual growth," said. Col. D. Peter Helmlinger, USACE Europe District commander. "This investment to replace the current deteriorating school to with state-of-the-art facilities will help make the most of this unique opportunity. We are proud members of a larger team helping to modernize and set new standards for educational facilities."
The campus will be constructed in three phases, Helmlinger said. Construction begins with the American elementary and middle schools in a vacant field just north of the current school facilities. The second phase will begin this summer with construction on the American high school. The third and final phase will begin in summer 2014 with the international facilities.
The new facilities will replace existing, inadequate facilities constructed more than 40 years ago, Davin said.
"Our school faces demands that were never intended or conceived when our facilities were built in 1967 in less than 6 months," he said. "Education today is delivered in a quite different manner with new more sophisticated tools and techniques that don't fit the rather simplistic convention of 50 year old school designs."
Dr. Dell McMullen, acting director of DoDDS-Europe, echoed Davin's concerns over the existing facilities.
"We have many projects ongoing at this time, but I must say, that this is one of the projects that is needed most," she said. "Participating nations have committed precious resources for this construction to get our students out of a building that's obsolete and into 21st century classrooms because every student deserves a great school."
DoDDS has seen many famous leaders and celebrities walk their halls as students over the years, including Faye Dunnaway and Shaquille O'Neal. Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James Stavridis and as his wife, also DoDDS alumnus, said their experience gives them a more personal understanding of the importance of these educational facilities.
"We understand the value of education, but particularly of this kind of international environment where so many different nations come together to create a truly magnificent spark of light which creates a fire of intellectual curiosity among so many wonderful young people," Stavridis said.
The American elementary and middle schools are scheduled to be complete in summer 2014 with the high school scheduled to be finished a little later that summer. A majority of the international facilities are scheduled to be complete in 2016 with the remaining facilities to be completed in 2018.
The timeline reflects the careful planning needed to transfer students out of the old buildings into new temporary classrooms where they will continue instruction until the new facilities are complete, said Steven Keen, USACE Europe District project manager.
"A project of this magnitude cannot be done without teamwork and communication to bring all the pieces together while minimizing interruptions to the students during the school year," Helmlinger said. "The end result will bring great rewards to future generations."
Not only was the campus designed to have little environmental impact with its sustainable design features aimed at LEED Silver certification, the layout will allow for the daily interaction and socialization of students from all nations, Helmlinger said.
"Diversity is indeed one of the cornerstones of the SHAPE International School," Davin said. "Our multicultural environment definitely is a source of mutual enrichment. Education consists as a key role to play in fostering the climate of mutual understanding and respect that extends beyond national boundaries and cultural preferences."
The combined efforts of USACE, DoDDS-Europe, SHAPE and the contractors over the past two years will soon change the face of the SHAPE International School, Davin said.
"The new SHAPE school complex is a great example of what we can all accomplish when we all work together to provide for our students," McMullen said. "I'm very excited for the students that will benefit from your hard work. Most of all, I'm looking forward to the first day of school in 2014."