Haldiman: At new SMart Center, space really is final frontier


Everything is connected to everything.

Peoria Unified Superintendent Linda Palles Thompson was once told this and it has stuck with her over the years, especially when she looks at the new SMart Center, which now houses Sunrise Mountain High School’s visual arts program.

The facility was once home to the Arizona Challenger Space Center, honoring the power of innovation and the possibilities of the creative mind. There was a wonder if it would ever return to its former glory, built from the bricks cemented by the memories of  Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first school teacher in space, but tragically lost her life in the Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.

Today the revitalized facility it is abustle with students burning with a desire to create and make the world a better place.

Christa McAuliffe would be proud.

Ms. Palles Thompson, who will retire later this year, sees the connection of everything when she looks at what has been done by everybody involved to re-purpose the unconventional 25,000 square-foot building that features a space-sucking 2,600 square-foot rotunda. The unique space made it difficult to figure out how it would be used after the Arizona Challenger Space Center left in 2017 due to financial troubles.

But she said the facility is back in a useful and vital way to kick-off the a new decade, under budget and ahead of schedule, to boot.

“We opened up this Challenger Center and it was pretty impressive and a wonderful place to do missions. It outlived its energy and then we bounced it back and forth,” she said. “Now it is about the children ... The Challenger Center is now a smart school and it really was a smart move.”

But everything is connected to everything has a deeper meaning because Ms. Palles Thompson has a very real relationship with Ms. McAuliffe, although she never met her, and the spaceship that exploded off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“The Challenger Center was kind of a big deal for me. Thousands of years ago when I was a very young educator I was nominated to go on the Challenger mission by my school district back in Chicago,” she said. “Luckily I didn’t make it. I did pass the first round. I didn’t make it past that, but it was special because Christa McAuliffe was special.”

The revitalized facility now serves up to 200 students in five separate classroom spaces with art, ceramics and photography. The space is complete with a digital and wet lab for photography students. The design also includes community spaces the district can rent to community organizations and others to host enrichment classes for students beyond the school day. The rotunda space will play into this offering.

The new facility will also serve the very important and practical purpose of relieving overcrowding in Sunrise Mountain High School, allowing additional space for general education classrooms, expanding capacity by about 250 students.

This might be the most important aspect of the facility’s new use, considering overcrowding in schools has been known to hinder student learning.

Indeed, space really is the final frontier.

Editor’s note: Mr. Haldiman is the news editor of the Peoria Independent.