Custodians of history New military school set to open next year — Delaware Newszap

CLAYTON — For now, First State Military Academy is a noisy construction site.

Workers at the old St. Joe’s property in Clayton were busy renovating buildings Wednesday afternoon, but in a year, the hallways will be filled with young cadets.

The First State Military Academy board went to settlement on the site, once St. Joseph’s Industrial School, in January. And in fall 2015, after years of planning, a military academy will open in Kent County.

The school, which received approval by the state Board of Education in June, is modeled after Delaware Military Academy upstate.

Like all charter schools, First State Military Academy will be an independent, tuition-free public school. The school is co-ed and open to students across the state.

Organizers looked up and down Kent County for property before they settled on St. Joe’s. The 35-acre site in Clayton was a great deal, said Dave McGuigan, who is working on the renovation project as the owner’s representative. Now, students and staff can reuse buildings with an already long-standing past.

“We’re recycling buildings,” he said. “We’re recycling buildings to give kids a college prep education without spending tens of millions of dollars.”

Seven buildings sit on the Duck Creek Road property. The plan is to renovate three of them before 200 freshmen and sophomores arrive at the school next year.

Standing outside one of the buildings, Drexel Hall, on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. McGuigan noted the future flag plaza, where the commandant will meet students each morning. The 30,000-square foot building will serve as the main classroom building. Tucked in the back of the property, it includes a gym and cafeteria.

St. Michael’s Hall will hold the arts, music and JROTC programs. The media center will be housed in a 1700-square-foot building beside Drexel. Cadets will drill on an expansive field in the front of the school.

The First State Military Academy curriculum is based on “New Tech” schools, which teach through teamwork and projects. The model also emphasizes technology, said Teresa Gerchman, chief schools officer for Innovative Schools, and each teen will receive computer to work on.

Innovative Schools, a non-profit resource center based in Wilmington, worked with the board to develop the curriculum. Cadets will tackle real-world projects, Ms. Gerchman said, problems that bring together a variety of disciplines, from math to social studies.

At the same time, First State Military Academy will foster respect through its JROTC program, said Scott Kidner, who chairs the board. “It will allow our cadets to stay focused on learning instead of some of the other things that go on in a traditional classroom,” he said. “That won’t be here. We think that’s important.”

Custodians of history

Three buildings at the front of the campus, facing the road, are on the National Register of Historic Places: St. Michaels Hall, Morrell Hall and the chapel. Mr. McGuigan said that school administration will maintain but not use the church, an Italianate-style chapel from 1896 with green trim and stained-glass windows,

“There is a fair amount of history here that we are. custodians of,” Mr. Kidner said. “And we feel a great responsibility that, as we tell the story of First State Military, we are actually going to preserve some of the history that is at the St. Joe’s site.”

The St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart opened the school in 1896 to teach trades to African American students.

According to the property’s application for the register of historic places, the school’s founder, Fr. John DeRuyter, said he wanted to teach boys “the dignity of labor” so that they can support themselves and “go forth among their own people and make good Christian workmen.”

The school opened with 25 students, all from the St. Joseph Orphanage in Wilmington. Enrollment grew rapidly, drawing underprivileged students from throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

The school closed its doors in 1972, but the name «St. Joseph’s Industrial School» is still etched on a stone arch with tall gates stands at the old entranceway.

Mr. McGuigan stopped near the gate on Wednesday. In four years, he said, the school will hold its first graduation; “Just picture those gates being open and 500 cadets marching out of here. You know, it would be a great moment for our state, I think.”

On Wednesday afternoon, he stood in a room with a high ceiling in St. Michael’s Hall, a space that might serve as a board room. He pointed to the plywood over the arched windows, where he plans to install stained glass, and the low-hanging chandeliers he hopes to keep.While workers update the buildings, Mr. McGuigan said, they are tasked to maintain their original look.

The work on the first phase of the project, which is expected to cost about $3.5 million, is on time and under budget, Mr. Kidner said.

The school is set to receive its certificate of occupancy ahead of the school year in June 2015.

Crews are now replacing the roofs and installing new windows on the three buildings students will initially use, making sure that they are sealed tight.

The major renovations will begin next; workers will paint, put in carpets, knock down walls in narrow hallways to make open, collaborative spaces.

As the years move on, the plan is to renovate Morrell Hall as well and construct a new building for science classes. In the back, officials hope to eventually add a football field, baseball field and softball field.

The board bought the St. Joe’s property for about $1 million with bridge loan from NCALL Research in Dover and long-term financing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program.

First State Military Academy will hold an open house from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday to allow parents, students and community members to learn more about the school and faculty and take a look at the facility, 355 West Duck Creek Road, Clayton.

Staff writer Eleanor La Prade can be reached at 741-8242 or elaprade@newszap.com. Follow @DSNEleanor on Twitter.

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