Construction milestone reached at new campus

Construction workers attend the topping-off ceremony in front of The Tracy Performing Arts Center at the new campus for The Villages High School.

The Villages Charter School’s South Campus, the centerpiece of Middleton, is closer to welcoming students into its new buildings. Wharton-Smith Construction Group held a topping off ceremony Wednesday at the future campus of The Villages High School. Hundreds of workers, VCS administration staff, business partners (including VMG Construction and SchenkelShultz Architecture) and members of the Morse family attended the event in the courtyard between the Mark G. Morse Sports Complex and the Tracy Performing Arts Center. “It’s an unbelievable project,” said Devon Wiechens, vice president of commercial design for The Villages. “This is the largest single project we’ve done when you consider the K-8 campus and the high school being built at the same time. “It’s exciting to see it all and see the progress. But it will be even more exciting when we get to see all the kids here next fall. We’re just thrilled for the opportunities these new schools will offer to kids for generations to come.”

Wiechens also appreciated the support of the hundreds of workers who made Wednesday’s event possible. 

“This is an amazing event,” she said. “It’s incredibly important be able to recognize all these workers for all of the hard work they put into projects like this.”

The 450,000-square-foot high-school campus will have state-of the-art academic and athletic capabilities for a maximum enrollment of 2,000 students. 

The charter school expansion in Middleton also includes a K-8 school campus and an additional location for The Villages Early Learning Center. 

The current K-8 North Campus on County Road 466 will remain part of the charter school system. Both K-8 campuses will feed into the new high school. 

Wednesday’s ceremony was to celebrate the milestone of reaching the highest point of construction for the high school, said Larry Sease, project executive for Wharton-Smith. 

“We just topped out this week over at the football stadium,” he said. 

Sease highlighted the athletic facilities that also include a gymnasium and arena with four basketball courts, artificial-turf baseball and softball stadiums, four soccer fields, a golf education building, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, tennis courts, basketball courts and sand volleyball courts. 

“This is going to be an all-encompassing sports facility,” Sease said.

Workers will continue to ready classrooms and all facilities for occupancy.

“We are about 13 months through a 20-month project,” Sease said. 

VCS administration is preparing for the move south next summer with purchases for equipment such as new furniture, computers and supplies, said Randy McDaniel, director of education.

“We’re planning all of those purchases and actually ordering some of that stuff right now,” McDaniel said. 

McDaniel said he expects teachers and administration will begin relocating and readying classrooms by early summer for a fall opening in the 2023-24 school year. 

VHS Principal Rob Grant is astonished by the project and the eventual move to the new campus.

“It’s a beautiful facility,” he said. “I know it’s going to be top notch, state of the art, so I feel privileged to be a part of it. It’s really been an eye opener on the magnitude of what a building like this takes.”

Grant is appreciative of the support VCS has received over the years.

“I think it’s an unbelievable educational opportunity for our kids,” Grant said. “What The Villages has done for us and to provide a school like this, I mean it’s unheard of anywhere.” 

Many people scoffed at the idea of building the charter school when it was first proposed, said Mark Morse, president and CEO of The Villages.

“Years ago, when we started to build a school in a retirement community, a lot of people thought we were nuts,” Morse said. “But we realized early on, in order to build a world-class community, you need a world-class team to do it. And the types of people we wanted to attract to help us deliver a world-class community are the types of people who are going to be concerned about their child’s education. So we hatched the idea for the charter school.”

Morse explained at the Evening With the Developer in May that a new school campus is vital to continuing to recruit workers as The Villages expands southward.

“We already have a great school system, arguably one of the greatest in the state,” he said. “So what we decided to do is expand the school system with two campuses. We’re maintaining the original campus we built 22 years ago and we’re building a second K-12 campus, increasing the size of the school.”

VCS has met high standards, from test scores to graduation rates and other measures of achievement. The school had an “A” rating every year since 2003 that the Florida Department of Education gave school grades.

Staff writer Garrett Shiflet can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367, or garrett.shiflet@thevillagesmedia.comSpecialty Editor Keith Pearlman contributed to this report.