At first, Tom Herbst just couldn't see how the former Holiday Chevrolet dealership on Grand River in Farmington Hills could ever be transformed into a new home for Steppingstone School.
The dealership had been closed for a year when Steppingstone School board trustees Sonny and Yong Son, who are husband and wife, first identified it as a possible location. The school acquired the property in May.
"I was a nay-sayer," admitted Herbst, who is assistant head of school at the K-8 school for gifted children. He said when the project was first proposed, "We were all kind of shell-shocked for a moment."
Now, Herbst is a strong supporter of the project, even though there have been a few bumps in the road. Some work was left to be done when school started in August. And, as school officials expected, enrollment dropped as result of the move from the International School in Farmington Hills. The school now has 25 students.
Herbst said the head of school, Kiyo Morse, had the enrollment drop built into her planning for the project. School officials expect enrollment to come back up, and when it does, Steppingstone will have plenty of room for it. That was one of the attractions to buying the dealership, he said.
"The ability to have all that space was very appealing," Herbst said of the 5,500-square-foot main office/showroom and 31,800-square-foot garage. "The thought of not having to dig a foundation was very appealing."
As time goes by, expansion plans include making a permanent home for the Steppingstone Magnetic Resonance Training Center, which is overseen by Philip Morse, Ph.D. Morse gives students ranging from eighth grade through college age hands-on research experience that will inspire them to pursue careers in science. Morris also teaches computer science to Steppingstone students at all levels.
The school's innovative curriculum organizes students into multi-age classrooms, and then into even smaller groups for instruction. Herbst said gifted students often excel in one subject, and the structure allows them to pursue a higher level of achievement in that area.
Herbst said having a permanent home has allowed Steppingstone to adapt the space to the curriculum, rather than the other way around. "We are no longer tenants, constrained by someone else's space ... The classrooms were designed to fit the way the Head of Education thinks kids should be taught.
Herbst said Sonny Son, owner of Ypsilanti-based Mich Construction, acted as general contractor for the project. Another Steppingstone parent, architect Tim Nicohols of Southfield-based Rouge River Group, also made a significant contribution.
Students and parents pitched in to move everything out of the old building over three days, Aug. 5-7. "It was unbelievable," Herbst said.
The school opened the following Monday without air conditioning, phones or Internet service. In the moment, Herbst said, conditions seemed awful, but as he looked back, he realized it really wasn't so bad.
"It became important for us to know this is where we're landing," Herbst said. "We are home."