By MELISSA CROCKETT MESKE
At the start of a new academic year for Belleville Township High School District 201 came the debut of its newest innovation in teaching and learning: A bright and clean learning facility now known as “The CAVE.”
The Center for Academic Vocational Excellence broke ground in March 2022. Just five months later, the brand new vocational and alternative education center welcomed faculty and students into the halls of this former Kings Point Sports Club off Route 15 as the new school year began. Millennium Construction of Lebanon, Ill., led the real-time development of bringing this project’s vision alive.
Superintendent Brian Mentzer hosted a preview tour that included staff members of U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Belleville Mayor Patty Gregory, regional workforce development representatives and other District 201 administrators along with the IBJ just a few days before teachers and students would begin to experience and benefit from this shared passion project.
The CAVE houses the district’s career and technical education programs as well as its alternative education students. But that’s not all. It also serves as a recreational and training hub for the 201’s athletic programs.
“We have instruction in the trades, skilled careers, and in entrepreneurism here. We have our CAVE Exploration program as well for our lower grades,” Mentzer noted during the walking tour. “We’ve added nine new CTE [career and technical education] teachers this year. And we’ve also installed about 40,000-square-feet of new turf for our district’s sports and athletes.”
“Our main goals: To remove barriers and to increase access,” Mentzer stressed. This is something Mentzer continued to emphasize throughout the steps of the tour.
The CAVE features quality classrooms, cutting-edge technology, and comfortable desks throughout its multi-level instructional facilities. But wait, there’s more…
For example, the Culinary Arts classrooms and lab training area features state-of-the-art commercial kitchen equipment and a full walk-in freezer designed for instruction as well as for hands-on experiences. Students will have the opportunity to directly take part in food preparation and catering for the district and its activities as a part of their vocational learning.
In fact, students will have the chance to develop a multitude of skills at The CAVE, Mentzer noted, including the culinary arts as well as other trade and industry areas of specialization such as welding, metalworking and machining, carpentry, construction, automotive technology, technology, childcare, and even more.
Along with more than a dozen classrooms, The CAVE also features a cafeteria on-site, a commons area for students to gather and relax, office space, space for athletic training and workout activities, computer lab, conference room, workstations, early childhood education observation room and more on its two floors, and a lower level with room for further expansion of The CAVE’s collectively shared passion and vision.
Areas have also been designed for career counseling, industry and trades mentoring, as well as for credentialing and certification testing as required for some career fields, such as automotive technology.
The advanced programming offered through The CAVE’s academic programming and skills training is designed with the possibility of students moving toward some sort of accreditation beyond that of a traditional high school diploma.
“SkillsUSA is taught in our carpentry programs,” Mentzer said, “and two of the three possible ASE certifications are possible through our automotive program, which is a dual-credit offering through Lewis and Clark Community College. Dual credit for all of our other programs here is offered through Southwestern Illinois College.”
Funding for The CAVE has come from several sources, and by avoiding a referendum thanks to a $1.25 million grant secured by State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) to purchase the site, Mentzer explained. “Title I, ESSER, all types of funding have helped make The CAVE come to life. We are further fortunate to have a $25,000 annual grant from the Southern Illinois Builders Association.”
Belleville 201 has partnered with local businesses, the Belleville Chamber of Commerce, the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois, Southwestern Illinois College, local trade unions, community leaders and state agencies, all with a focus on local workforce development and expansion.
This 100,000-square-foot facility at 7645 Magna Drive brought to life a long-held vision of District leaders and their partners from industry and the trades. Since The CAVE’s design and intent was first shared, major employers from throughout the St. Louis Metro region have stepped up to share in the vision. They have also continued in further dialogues for bringing even more skill development opportunities on-site for students and educators alike.
“Our community’s appetite for District 201 has changed,” said Mentzer. “We continue these daily dialogues with all of our district, community, and regional stakeholders.”
The Phase 2 vision encompasses possibilities for graphic art and design, healthcare, cosmetology, robotics and more. Next year, The CAVE plans to add lifeguard training and recreational swimming as credit classes to satisfy physical education requirements as well.
“In Fall 2023, we are looking at the possibility of introducing healthcare opportunities for the students, or perhaps cosmetology. World Wide Technology has asked for a further exploration of tech training opportunities. And SWIC has implemented an e-sports program that might provide opportunities for our students here,” said Mentzer.
“We’re looking at the spaces we still have undeveloped here, for things like a dance studio, and we’re considering the possibilities of suggested programming like that of entry-level avionics mechanics classroom training,” Mentzer shared further. “Flexible space could facilitate dance team practice and choreography development for our district’s performing arts and theater programs. The possibilities are endless, and so are the ideas pouring in from all our partners.”
A community open house will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 13. The public is invited to take in all The CAVE has to offer, starting at the 10-foot-high sculpture in the main lobby. This focal point is symbolic of the vision behind the center’s development – designed by art students, with students completing the machining and metalworking before welding students pieced it all together.
As Belleville Mayor Patty Gregory said, “This is a game-changer, for the community and the region.”
Photos by Melissa Crockett Meske/Illinois Business Journal
1: This is an exterior shot of the new Belleville District 201’s facility for career, technical and alternative education known as The CAVE.
2: This 10-foot-high sculpture stands in the main lobby of The CAVE, Belleville District 201’s new Center for Academic Vocational Excellence. This focal point was designed by art students, with students completing the machining and metalworking before welding students pieced it together.
3: Belleville Township High School District 201 Superintendent Brian Mentzer talks about the new culinary arts commercial kitchen lab facilities at The CAVE with tour participants just days before the center opened to students, faculty and staff.
4: This is a preview capture of the student technology classroom and lab at Belleville District 201’s new facility, The CAVE, which will feature the latest in design and equipment, suitable for e-gaming tech as well as many other types of modern tech skill development opportunities.
(Editor’s Note: This story and the first two photos were also published in the September 2022 print edition of the Illinois Business Journal.)