By Kayla Anderson
The new sparkling hallways of Sky Ranch Middle School are quiet at 10:15 a.m. as Principal Gina Leonhard and I stroll around checking out the new gymnasium, library and features that make Sky Ranch state-of-the-art.
However, the quiet didn’t last long as a faint sound of a bell rings and sixth, seventh and eighth graders come spilling out into the halls. Most are carrying small black bags with HP laptops in them (since Sky Ranch provides every student with a computer) and scurrying around trying to find their next class.
A little bit later, facing the Global Citizenship classrooms, some music comes on indicating that students have one minute to get to their next class and Leonhard starts dancing while gently reminding students to slow down and relax.
Sky Ranch was named after the airport that used to be there, so flight is a big theme with the words also serving as an acronym for “Fearless, Leader, Integrity, Grit, Honesty, and Tolerance” painted on the walls. It’s the reason why Sky Ranch students are called the Thunderbolts (named after the historic fighter airplanes) with old photos sourced from the Sparks Heritage Museum that show up in a mural in the main hallway just above the library that opened last Wednesday.
Inside the well-lit clean library, around 12,000 books line the walls with an unlimited number of eBooks and readers available within the web to students. In a back corner, a maker space hosts after school projects and programs related to the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and creative projects that encourage students to think beyond themselves. (For instance, students have created cat hammocks for a local humane society and notepads to give to kids in children’s hospitals). One recent project was even just a friendly competition on who could make the tiniest airplane using discarded maps.
There are two big wings in Sky Ranch, on one side for seventh and eighth grade classes and more of the academic core classes with the other being where sixth grade classes and electives are held. Each learning area has a cluster of team rooms, closely jointed so that students don’t have to travel too far to get from one room to the other.
Outside of the classroom, open hubs/collaboration spaces are available for students to have freedom to move around and work in a different environment with their teams. Next to some of the hubs are teacher spaces, modeled after professors’ offices like what you would see in a university. The restrooms aren’t a typical middle school setup either- two rows of single-use stalls face open-air rows of sinks, completely eliminating the restroom as a place to hide out.
The person at the front of the helm, Principal Gina Leonhard, has been with the Washoe County School District (WCSD) for 26 years, starting out as a teacher and then opening Yvonne Shaw Middle School when she was an assistant principal in 2004 (modeled after Dilworth Middle School at the time but newer).
Leonhard was at Shaw for the last nine years and worked her way up to become principal before taking the 2018-19 school year off to help build out Sky Ranch. She met with architects, designers, and engineers to try to provide direction for traffic flow and signage, then hired a lead team of 10 teachers to help provide input on the construction. This past March, Leonhard hired the rest of her staff and so they’ve all worked pretty closely together to get Sky Ranch running like a welloiled machine for when the kids arrived.
A lot of that comes from when Leonhard worked as assistant principal when WCSD opened Shaw; she says that the management team at that time focused on strong academics but lacked in building solid relationships with kids, but now she has more experience.
However, on day 5 Sky Ranch is still working out the kinks with one of the biggest challenges being the flow of traffic outside the building before school begins and when it lets out. Another is that Sky Ranch is already almost at its capacity with 1,300 students; before the school opened students had the option of being grandfathered into the school within their zone or attending Sky Ranch. The catch was that no transportation would be provided on the variance while there was a bus service provided to those who attended Sky Ranch. Therefore, it created a slow trickle effect of kids wanting to become Thunderbolts.
But while there are improvements still to be made, the staff is thrilled with their new location.
“The most exciting thing about being here is the atmosphere and having the ability to reset, start over, build from the ground up,” Leonhard says, whereas trying to make upgrades to a dated, existing building takes more work. “We’re just completely blessed to be here. If I asked a teacher to teach first period standing on their left foot the whole time, they’d probably be happy to do it,” she adds.
It’s clear that Sky Ranch has a tight-knit staff and all the kids seem to know Leonhard, but she always had that intention in mind.
“For this school, I hired fabulous teachers and the academics are strong,” she says, noting that she also emphasized building relationships between employees so that teachers could be a united front when instructing their students. Therefore, continuing into the 2019-20 school year, Leonhard’s mission is to keep the momentum going.
“Our main goal is to have the same energy in June as we do now,” Leonhard says.