Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

Sewickley Academy’s New Events Center Builds Community, Student Confidence

Oct 01, 2017 11:11AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Students, faculty and staff use state-of-the-art cardio machines and weight room equipment. Photos courtesy of Vibrant Images, Tabatha Knox.

Fostering a sense of community has always been important at Sewickley Academy, Pittsburgh's oldest co-educational, college preparatory, independent Pre-K through Grade 12 day school. With the addition of its new Events Center, which will celebrate its first anniversary next month, the school has been able to expand on its ability to enrich the lives of students, staff, faculty, and the community as a whole.

“Years ago, it became clear to us that we would need a facility that would accommodate everyone in one space; our auditorium was lovely, but it just wasn’t big enough,” explained Head of School Kolia O’Connor. “There was not a place where Pre-K through Grade 12 could all gather together on campus, which was a concern when building community.

“Each time that we held the celebration to launch a new year, we would meet outside and cross our fingers that it wouldn’t be too hot or too rainy,” he laughed. 

In 2005, the school started planning a multipurpose facility. “The board of trustees got together with the building and grounds committee and began blue-sky thinking,” said O’Connor. “We told them to dream big! After many reiterations, the plans became more grounded, and scaled to the size of the school and a budget we could tolerate.”

In October 2015, ground was broken on a new $11.5 million Events Center, which opened in November of the following year. The project was paired with renovations of the school’s Oliver Science Building, both of which were funded through philanthropic donations.

“We went to the community for help to make this possible,” said O’Connor, adding that tuition dollars are not typically used to fund these types of projects. “This was our largest building project in 15 years, and we couldn’t have done it without the generosity of our supporters. The new building really engenders a sense of pride in our students; they’ve always been proud to attend Sewickley Academy, but they also appreciate this show of support by the community on their behalf.” 

Because the new building would also be used for athletic activities, coaches and physical education (PE) teachers took part in its design. “We talked to them about the types of teaching and learning that would take place in the building, and we built around that,” said O’Connor. 

The 54,800-square-foot, brick-clad, custom steel-framed, LEED Silver-certified building seats 950 people, and contains a training room and indoor gymnasium that can be closed off with a curtain to create two separate rooms. Each Sewickley Academy team has its own locker room, as do Middle and Senior School PE classes. A 43,000-square-foot fitness center contains state-of-the-art cardio machines and weight room equipment, and there is also a core training room where yoga classes are held. There is a concession stand area, training classrooms, and offices for staff. 

“The new building also contains office space for part-time coaches, which not many schools have,” said Win Palmer, director of athletics. “It’s nice that coaches who don’t teach in the building don’t have to borrow offices when they need space to collaborate with students.”

According to Palmer, the beauty of the facility is that it fits all sorts of school purposes. “There’s so much we can do here, from school gatherings, to graduations, to PE classes, basketball games and all sorts of athletic activities; it’s just incredible,” he said.

“We previously had a small gym and small locker room, and that was it,” he added. “This facility provides the perfect place for 21st century learning for students of all types—you can be showing a video in one of the two media classrooms, have students doing core training in the spacious fitness center, and have teams practicing on the incredible indoor turf that’s perfect for lacrosse, field hockey, baseball or golf. Whatever sport or activity a student enjoys, they can maximize in this building.”

While the new facility lends itself to athletics, students who are not on a team or organized sport can find a home there as well. 

“We’re very proud of the fact that although the school has no athletic requirement, 85 percent of students are involved in intra-athletic programs,” said O’Connor. “But it still begs the question; what are we doing for the other 15 percent? To build healthy habits, how do you catch their interest? Our goal with the fitness center was to expand programming to reach those students in order to introduce them to life fitness.”

Health and PE teacher and basketball coach Casey Calland has already seen positive results from this specialized programming. “In the core training room, we’re offering yoga two times a week as well as a BODYPUMP class that is a mix of cardio and weight training,” she said. “Because it’s a more private room, students who aren’t comfortable working out in the weight room now have a safe space of their own.

“There’s so much more room that it gives athletic teams and students who are not on teams a place to land,” she added. “Because PE classes and sports teams all have their own locker rooms, there are no longer a lot of people jammed into a small area, which makes kids who are not athletic more comfortable.” 

According to O’Connor, the Events Center was also designed to support equity between genders and grade levels. “It sends a powerful message to kids about how we value them—on this campus, female athletes are just as important and valued as male athletes; Middle School students are just as important as Senior School students.” 

The Events Center is also a plus for Sewickley Academy employees who can use the facility from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. “It’s like having a membership to the YMCA,” said Palmer. “It’s a tremendous perk and a great way to keep everyone healthy.”

Students, including junior Tatum McKelvey, who is on the basketball and golf teams, especially appreciate the new facility. “I love that we have our own locker rooms, so that we can decorate them the way we want,” she said. “And the new sound system is really cool; we can make our own sound tracks for warm-ups.

“The indoor turf area, which we use for golf, gives us a great way to warm up before matches,” she added. “And I like that there’s a lot more space in the fitness center, so you can work out with trainers, and several teams as well as afterschool PE classes can work out at the same time.”

According to O’Connor, while Sewickley Academy has a reputation for delivering an outstanding education for students, life lessons don’t just happen in one area of the school.

“Students don’t just learn in biology labs; as part of a team, they learn about winning and losing, working together to achieve a goal, and subjugating the individual ego to the collective good,” he said. “The new Events Center helps us support our overall educational initiative as a school: to support each and every student to become his or her best and most authentic self.”