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Joe Fricano is encountering a situation he hasn't faced in his 11 years teaching at Catholic Memorial High School.

"When class ends in here, they don't want to leave," said Fricano, a world languages teacher. "That wasn't how it was when I was in high school."

But CMH's new Innovation Wing has changed learning and teaching at the school. And from the sound of it, it has changed for the better.

Positive reviews

"The first time I came in here, I was like, 'Wow,'" said sophomore Kayla McQuestion, while showing off a smart TV inside a world languages innovation lab. "It's like a breath of fresh air. It's incredible, and I love how it makes you want to be in this room."

McQuestion, along with many other excited students and teachers, were on hand last week to present the new classrooms, called innovation labs, during a grand opening ceremony and ribbon-cutting event that attracted more than 150 guests.

So far, it has received nothing but positive reviews from students, teachers, parents, alumni, community members and donors.

"I'm really impressed," said Melissa Barta, a parent of a sophomore at the school, who was with her husband, Jeff, while touring the Innovation Wing.

She watched her son, Isaac, show off a project he created in the school's Project Lead the Way course to guests in one of the labs. The Innovation Wing, which cost about $2 million, consists of seven labs and allows for multifunctional, collaborative and active learning areas for every subject.

The rooms in the Innovation Wing are named after some of the donors who contributed to the capital campaign at Catholic Memorial. More than 900 donors have given to the Crusading for Excellence Campaign, which is helping upgrade the school's facilities and classroom space over the next few years. Photo by Christopher Kuhagen.

Customizable design

Each lab is equipped with an attached breakout room to accommodate multiple group activities and meetings with specialist student mentors. The labs also include additional study and meeting spaces for the students to work individually or in groups.

The labs, which have to be reserved by the teachers, also consist of smart TVs and white boards spread across each wall, giving students and teachers the freedom to write and brainstorm ideas throughout the classroom.

No longer is the teacher just in front of a classroom giving a lecture. These rooms, which are bright and have a modern feel with the exposed ceilings to show off the architecture, have an open-floor concept in which the tables have the ability to move, allowing teachers to easily change the setup of the room.

"We can modify the room for learning, depending on different classroom activities," said Dave Mackett, a first-year social studies teacher at the school. "There is a lot more freedom than traditional desks allow and a lot more creative arrangements. You're not restricted with a big group. The options are phenomenal."

McQuestion said she likes the white boards, located on all corners of the room, especially since chalkboards made it difficult for her to see what was written in the front of a traditional classroom.

"When the sun's out, it's so open, it's so bright," McQuestion said. "There's so much space to write you can always see what you're doing. It feels very free without it being unstructured."

Multiple-phase effort

The Innovation Wing is the final part of the second phase of the Crusading for Excellence Campaign, a $10 million comprehensive campaign that is funding key initiatives outlined in Catholic Memorial High School's strategic plan, Vision 2020.

Phase 1 of the campaign, completed in 2014, consisted of adding air conditioning throughout the school, replacing 331 of the school's original lockers and old windows for energy-efficient ones, and adding synthetic turf at Valley Field.

The first part of Phase 2 was completed in August 2015 and included a renovated Academic Resource Center, formerly the library.

The Innovation Wing, the school's former math wing, opened last month.

Phase 3 of the capital campaign is ongoing. That final phase will include a new chapel for 80 to 100 people, a formal memorial wall, rehearsal space and dressing rooms for theater programs (where the current chapel is), a gathering area, and a handicap accessible entrance outside the auditorium.

Helping implement mission

While the funding for the various projects are still in the works and will add to CMH's core values, Mackett and Fricano said the innovation labs will go a long way into implementing the school's Memorial Propel mission — CMH's trademarked design-thinking process that has been led by Principal Bob Hall.

Paul Hartmann, priest and president at CMH, said Hall's vision for the Innovation Wing was instrumental and the rooms model CMH's teaching philosophy.

Fricano said Memorial Propel is a concept in which students develop brainstorming problem-solving skills through project-based learning within teams in an effort to model real-life situations.

"I think the possibilities in here are endless due to the engagement opportunities," Fricano said. "I think it's something that colleges can relate to. They're doing things like this in college and businesses. They have spaces like this to brainstorm to produce some result. It's like a think tank. It produces different opportunities for kids to showcase their work."

Hackett added: "The whole Propel model that Dr. Hall is pioneering is very big. The innovation wing is a great place" in developing those skills.

Hall said he worked with a developer and talked with local businesses, one of which was Johnson Controls, to see what companies are looking for and how they go about a team-approach model.

"What we tried to do is teach kids how to be innovative," Hall said.

They now have the place to do that.

"I've never seen anything like ... the Innovation Wing before in any of my teaching (experiences)," Mackett said. "It's very cool and unique to CMH."

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