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Learning by Heart
Visitation School celebrates opening of new commons area
March 17 was a historic day for Visitation School in Mendota Heights. For perhaps the first time ever, students couldn’t wait to go to school on a Monday.
They waited in anticipation for the unveiling of the new “Heart of the School” addition, a multilevel entryway and commons area. The entire community of 600 students and 125 staff gathered together in the new addition to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony. As the ribbon was cut, cheers and applause erupted throughout the new space.
The “Heart” is a welcoming area with new classrooms, a remodeled library and media lab, new lockers, lounges for student gatherings, a fireplace, private study areas, a new school store and a special display area honoring the Order of the Visitation of the Holy Mary Sisters, whose members founded and inspired the 141-year-old school.
Students said they were thrilled with the beauty of the space, which shines with natural light. The most striking feature of the new entryway is the historic, 14-foot stained glass window depicting the Sacred Heart. The window was originally created in the 1940s for the Visitation School on Fairmount Avenue in St. Paul. When the sisters moved to Mendota Heights in 1966, they saved the glass and stored it in their monastery. Now, 48 years later, the Sacred Heart window is back where it belongs.
Sister Mary Paula McCarthy, a retired Visitation history and English teacher, says the addition exemplifies the school’s heritage. “For over 400 years, the Visitation Order has been heart-centered, with human friendships echoing, supporting and encouraging the divine/human embrace,” she says.
“Now our school has expressed this reality through architecture, art and historic display. Our founder, St. Francis de Sales, said, and indeed, lived, ‘Heart speaks to heart.’ Truly, the ‘Heart’ does just that!”
The head and the heart
The Heart of the School addition completes a two-year, $10.5 million building initiative that also saw the creation of a new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) building. The Opus Hall STEM Center, named after the Opus Group of Minnetonka that built it, includes a machine shop, a large and small engineering assembly area, a flexible classroom and an expanded dining room and courtyard. Opus Hall was completed and opened in January 2013.
Construction on the two-part addition started in September 2012 with work on Opus Hall. Teachers describe the construction as difficult at times.
“There were days when construction noise was a challenge in the upper school biology lab. But we adapted to it and concentrated on activities that allowed us to keep moving forward with lessons,” science teacher Connie Parsley says.
In some cases, the construction provided an opportunity for learning.
“In the lower school, the kindergarteners and first-graders were in awe of the process and developed great relationships with the construction crew,” lower school director Michelle Mitchel says.
Construction masons gave demonstrations to the classes, Opus employees answered students’ questions, and preschool through second-grade students celebrated the renovation with construction hats and a reading of “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site.”
Despite challenges, the construction appears to have been worth it.
Mike Brill, Visitation’s athletic director, joined the school’s staff in 1978. He’s seen the construction of numerous additions to the school, including the fine arts center, the early childhood center, a new gymnasium and a middle school wing.
All the additions benefit the school, Brill says, but he thinks this newest space is something special. “All of these projects have been necessary and useful additions that provide a tremendous amount of utility for the school,” says Brill. “But the ‘Heart’ is, in my opinion, the most significant work we have done because it best captures the welcoming spirit of the sisters, an attribute we all want to remain vibrant.”
Space makes all the difference
The new spaces, technologies and resources of the Heart of the School and Opus Hall are designed to benefit students academically, socially and spiritually. The Heart of the School addition balances a variety of learning environments, from cozy private nooks for individual study to larger, flexible areas for group projects. Students enjoy spending time in the common areas, whether it’s to study or hang out.
“I really love the natural light and so many new areas to study alone or together with friends,” says Christine Kane, a freshman at Visitation and a resident of Eagan. “There are also comfortable places just to be together and talk,” she says.
Junior Hannah Feist of Woodbury enjoys the warm atmosphere: “I love the ‘Heart’ — the open, natural light makes me happy when I walk in. Sitting by the fireplace and visiting with my friends makes me feel very sophisticated.”
In the STEM center, the new workshop spaces and innovative technology inspire creative and analytical problem-solving skills with the goal of preparing students to meet modern challenges.
“The construction of both the STEM center and the Heart of the School demonstrates our school’s commitment to moving forward with facilities that are state-of-the-art and a curriculum that prepares 21st century learners,” says Dawn Nichols, Visitation’s head of school. “Having a robust ‘heart’ at the center of our school reinforces the beliefs and values we share, and it enriches our ability to educate the whole student — mind, body and soul.”