Hilsman comes home

Hilsman Middle School has been Clarke County’s latest school renovation. The school’s $24.5 million renovation and expansion began in 2018, and on August 27, students started their first day in the new building. 

Nothing but excitement has come with the new Hilsman, which wasn’t supposed to be finished until December. 

“Once you walk inside you can see that the outside is nothing to what it really looks like on the inside. So I think that curb appeal is what catches your eye first and makes you want to know or see what’s really going on inside,” said Fabian Jones, assistant principal at Hilsman. 

Since the demolition of their school, students have been in the old Gaines School building down the road, originally built in 1928. The building has served as temporary housing for schools that are being renovated in Clarke County.  

Being inside the old school building caused quite a struggle for teachers and students, from having toilets and water fountains that come up to student’s knees to having an entire grade level out in trailers. 

“We did have to walk back and forth (from the trailers to the building) to go to the bathroom or use the water fountain. So teachers couldn’t really let us use the bathroom in the periods where we couldn’t use the bathroom all as a class,” said Ruby Calkin, a 7th-grade student who spent her first year of middle school in the trailers behind the school. 

The size of the old Gaines building proved to be a struggle considering that the building was built for elementary school students.

“The classrooms are really small. And for the entire first week, we didn’t have enough desks. There were like 30 kids in each class, and kids were sitting on floors and teacher’s desks,” said Lilly McGreevy, 8th grade.

Crowded Classroom: Dismissal at the old Gaines building was a challenge. Students crowded around the doors, trying to maneuver their way through the tables and chairs. “It’s very small so it causes problems that you can’t move us around very much,” said Alora Collazo, 8th grade. Photo by Coriander McGreevy.

Aside from being crammed inside the building, the August heat only added to the problems. Classes sometimes took turns in the cafeteria because some of the air conditioning units were failing. While the cafeteria was cooler than most classrooms, students coming in to get lunch were surprised to find classes being taught in the cafeteria.

“The actual classroom in the beginning of the day is fine because it’s not 90-degrees outside, but when it starts rising everyone gets really irritable, I get people saying ‘Excuse me Mrs. Bell, I’m really nauseous, I have a migraine,’ all of that. People can’t operate in that kind of heat. It really starts cooking about third period, so we have to come in here,” said Ms. Nyla Bell, 8th grade Georgia Studies teacher. 

Through all the struggles of being at old Gaines, things are looking up for Hilsman. A new administration led by Principal Capucina Douglass first focused on hiring new staff members after high teacher turnover last year. Now, the new building is the center of everyone’s attention.

Proud Principal: Capucina Douglass greets families at the open house of the new Hilsman. Douglass made sure that everyone knew where they should go if they were lost. “This building reflects the amazingness of our students. The brilliance,” Douglass said. Photo by Melanie Frick.

“So we have 24 new staff members. I mean it’s just an amazing building. It’s beautiful, it’s inviting, it’s warm, it’s stimulating, it’s fresh, and it’s going to spark all kinds of innovation in our students and in our staff,” Douglass said. “One of the things that we’re focusing on this year is making sure that we retain our amazing teachers. Support them, build capacity with professional learning, making sure that phenomenal teachers help support and cultivate phenomenal students.” 

Students are just as excited for the new building.

“The cafeteria is huge, and we don’t have to have A and B lunch like the previous year. My entire grade (200 kids) can fit in it. I also love the stools. In most of my classes we have stools instead of chairs, so kids are less tempted to fall asleep,” said McGreevy.

“I think seeing kids be excited to like that sense of ownership is just such a big thing in middle school, especially because kids are trying to figure themselves out and so them not being proud of where they are learning, I think we’re going to have a huge shift in it overall, and just feeling proud of where they’re going to school,” said Meganne Skinner, Instructional Coach.