This summer is one for the books at Saint Thomas Academy. The all-boys high school and middle school has undertaken the most extensive renovation project since it moved from Saint Paul to Mendota Heights in 1965. Founders Hall, the oldest building on campus, is being re-imagined along with the school’s Institute of Science and Engineering. In addition to larger classrooms and a new HVAC system, the building will feature new laboratories and other technological upgrades.

Saint Thomas Academy
Saint Thomas Academy headmaster Kelby Woodard leads a tour of the school’s $6 million renovation of Founders Hall and the adjacent Institute of Science and Engineering. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Dubbed Summer Splash ’21, the $6 million project began after school let out in May and will be completed before the new academic year begins on August 30, according to headmaster Kelby Woodard. “It’s a $6 million project, to be done in 59 days,” Woodard said. “That’s why it’s called Summer Splash.”

When Woodard became headmaster in 2020, STA was already thinking about expanding in one form or another. “We had talked about this for years and years,” said Mark Westlake, a longtime physics teacher at the school and the director of the Innovation Center within the Institute of Science and Engineering. “Then headmaster Woodard came in and pushed it forward. I’ve been really impressed with headmaster Woodard and the board of directors for their vision with this project.”

A former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Woodard was well-acquainted with STA before stepping into his current position. He and his family lived in the Twin Cities and one of his sons graduated from STA before the family moved to Texas where Woodard served six years as the founding president of Cristo Rey Dallas College Prep.

“Over the last year, we contemplated what we needed to do to upgrade the STA campus,” Woodard said. “Our enrollment is up dramatically year after year. This year we’ll have in the neighborhood of 620 cadets. We had 589 last year.”

The Innovation Center incorporates the latest in engineering technology,
from 3D printers to laser cutters. The center is home to the school’s Experimental Vehicle Team, which placed first in the recent Shell Eco-Marathon in London.

Thinking about how best to meet students’ needs, Woodard said, “we said we don’t need more space. We need to honor our history and focus on meeting academic needs. We’re not looking to create bright and shiny new facilities. We’re interested in leveraging the great foundation we currently have on campus and spending money wisely. It’s far more interesting to invest in a really cool physics lab than a feel-good space.

 

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“You have to look at your culture and the culture of the building you’re in,” Woodard added. “Our culture at STA is pretty gritty. It’s a place that values character development through our pillars—our military pillar, our Catholic pillar and the all-male pillar.” The fourth pillar on which STA is built, college preparation, was another important component in the renovation project, Woodard said.

The four-year-old Innovation Center incorporates the latest in engineering technology, from 3D printers to laser cutters. The center is home to the school’s Experimental Vehicle Team, which has a global reputation for excellence. The team placed first in the recent Shell Eco-Marathon in London.

Renovation focused on improved academics

“Until now, the science department at STA had been satellited with a little group of classrooms here and a little group there,” Woodard said. “Science was being taught in rooms that were not really designed for science. Now the entire department is together with the Innovation Center at the core.

“Physics had bounced around because it has the most flexibility of any of the sciences,” Westlake said. “But our new physics classroom is designed as a physics classroom. And with sliding doors to the Innovation Center, if we need more room for cars to run on the floor, they can go in between. And there’s a brand new science lab designed especially for middle-schoolers.” That is important, according to Woodard and Westlake, because middle school is when students begin to explore academic interests that lead to career interests.

The renovation of Founders Hall was done with an eye to how STA integrates all academic disciplines, according to Woodard. “If we were just focused on one discipline or another, we wouldn’t be giving students a full picture of the real world,” he said. “They’re very tied together from a philosophical standpoint. In the Innovation Center, we have artwork on the wall that art students have made involving gears. Engineering sometimes brings art students’ creations to life.”

In conjunction with the renovation of Founders Hall, the space in front of the building that had been reserved for parking is being transformed into a courtyard where outdoor classes, alumni gatherings and cadet corps formations can be held.

Funding for all of the improvements has come from a four-year capital campaign, according to Woodard. The campaign, he said, is separate from the endowment funds that provide tuition assistance for students. “It’s important to us that any student who wants to come here and would benefit from being here can do that,” he said.

— Anne Murphy

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