On Aug. 18, children will walk into the former First Family Church for the opening day of school.
And, thanks to many of months of work, it won’t look like a megachurch anymore.
Windows have been lowered to floor level and bathrooms scaled down. Floors are color-coded so children won’t get lost.
“It’s such a large building it could be easy to feel as though a young child can get swallowed up,” said Kendall Burr, a principal.
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The Blue Valley School District bought the campus for $9 million in 2012 after the property at 7700 W. 143rd St. went into foreclosure and then set about doing $17 million in renovations.
Now the 51-acre newly renamed Hilltop Campus in Overland Park is done. With the slogan “Education Beyond Expectations” emblazoned on its building, it houses an early childhood learning center, conference center, Parents as Teachers program and Student Services.
The “mega” in megachurch had to be broken down and translated into an early childhood learning center for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.
So the school district devised a system of neighborhoods within the learning center to reflect Kansas’ three ecosystems: rivers, forests and prairies. It color-coordinated the floors so children could look down and know where they were at all times. In the forest neighborhood, two existing pillars were masked with handmade trees.
With a 125,000-square-foot church to repurpose, the district had to constantly think of ways to efficiently reconstruct and use space.
“It was a challenge that then gave us an opportunity,” said Burr, principal of the early childhood programs.
The facility now stands at 126,000 square feet after adding a tornado shelter. The learning center will serve about 1,000 families, especially those within the south and southwest area of the district, Burr said.
Inside the building, the Hilltop Learning Center is in what used to be the church’s Sunday school area.
Bright primary colors have been replaced with calming natural palettes of light blue, green and tannish yellow.
“We (kept) the environment calm, and the color comes from the children themselves,” said Wendy Webb, the Parents as Teachers program coordinator.
Teacher Stacy Fallucca said her classroom is often the first place children go to from home. She uses the environmental colors to promote a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s a cozier feeling for the children,” she said. “It reminds me of home.”
Burr said it would have been easy for children to be dwarfed by the building’s large size and high ceilings, so bathrooms between classrooms have mini-toilets and shorter stalls. The children’s gym, which is also a multipurpose room, is smaller than a traditional elementary gym and used to be the church’s “Heavenly Bucks” coffee shop.
In the hallways, curious minds can touch the textured walls and look up at the starry ceilings.
Al Hanna, deputy superintendent of administrative services, said that upstairs the church had a sprawling gym, which he estimated had nine hoops. Now part of the gym is broken up into a “cubicle village.” Photos of families and stacks of folders and books adorn desks.
Teachers and Student Services staff, including physical and occupational therapists, have been moving into their new space since before the last school year ended.
The area that has seen the least change is the Hilltop Conference Center, which used to be the church’s lobby and sanctuary, Hanna said. In the lobby, the only modifications were new ceiling tiles, carpeting and paint.
Even though both the sanctuary and the conference room are used for bringing people together, the district is going about filling the space in a completely different way, Hanna said.
The stage in the sanctuary was cut in half. Instead of packing in 1,600 chairs like the church did, the district will set up tables and enough chairs for 400 people for better collaboration. The “frankly unattractive” snack bar is walled off. The former choir room is now the district’s securely locked IT room.
“We took out the baptismal,” Hanna said. “We didn’t think we were going to need it.”
All remaining religious items were donated to churches. Hanna said the district wanted to be respectful and sensitive.
The land surrounding the building could be used to house more district buildings or be sold off in the future, Hanna said.
“With the growth of this school district, I’m sure at some point we will be very happy to have that space.”