Frederick D. Thomas Middle set for June 30 completion

95,000-square-foot, $63.9 million Lewes school has 600-student capacity
October 16, 2023

Cape Henlopen School District officials are targeting a June 30 construction completion date for Frederick D. Thomas Middle School in Lewes.

The 95,104-square-foot, $63.9 million facility has a 600-student capacity, Principal Dave Frederick said during an Oct. 11 tour of the campus, which both Frederick and Capital Projects Coordinator Richard Seifert say has a collegiate feel.

The new school was approved by referendum in March 2018 and is the first entire middle school the district has designed and constructed in 20 years, Seifert said.

“We did a lot of funky stuff with this,” Seifert said.

New attendance zones for Frederick D. Thomas Middle will draw students from the greater Lewes area, and alleviate crowding at Beacon and Mariner middle schools by 200 to 250 students each.

With an early completion date, officials will have the remainder of the summer to ensure everything is ready for the first day of school in September 2024, Frederick said, noting all of the same extracurricular and athletic programs available at Beacon and Mariner will be ready for students on day one. 

At least 11 different trades teams comprising 75 to 125 employees on any given day worked on the school over the summer, Seifert said, expediting construction. In fact, he said, this is the first recently built district school in which steelwork has been completed this early in the schedule.

Located on the site of the former Shields Elementary, the school is named after Frederick D. Thomas, the first African American administrator in the Cape Henlopen School District.

In addition to teaching and simultaneously serving as principal of the DuPont Avenue School, later renamed the Frederick D. Thomas Building, Thomas was subsequently principal at Shields Elementary and then at Lewes Junior High, which is now the site of Lewes Elementary. 

The first-floor main hallway will showcase artifacts and memorials honoring Thomas, Seifert said. District officials and ABHA Architects are collaborating with the Thomas family to source photos and information about the educational and social pioneer who was also a decorated World War II veteran.

The three-story building will house sixth graders on the first floor, with ascending grade levels occupying upper stories. Layouts are identical so students don’t have to learn a new floor plan every year, Seifert said.

A spacious first-floor area where the gym, cafeteria and auditorium converge at a two-story set of learning stairs is the centerpiece of the building, Frederick said.

The area will be a very active space, Seifert said.

“The visual lines are intense,” Seifert said of the design. “There’s no kid going to school here who isn’t going to know what’s going on all around them.”

Band and choral rooms are on the first floor, and an outdoor classroom will be located adjacent to the media center, which will be bathed in natural light streaming through huge glass windows.

“You’ll need sunblock to sit in the library,” Frederick joked.

The building is angled so that all classrooms overlook athletic fields across Sussex Drive and behind Lewes Elementary. Intersecting pathways take pedestrians through the fields and idyllic George H.P. Smith Park all the way to the Fred Thomas Building on DuPont Avenue. An 8-foot-wide bridge will be constructed over a lagoon to connect fields. 

With such an expansive campus, Frederick said he’ll need a bike to get around quickly.

When students are not using the athletic fields and paths, they will be open to the public, Seifert said. The City of Lewes asked the district to expand the sidewalk to Highland Acres to 10 feet to conform with bike and foot traffic trail standards, and be more accessible for people who use wheelchairs, he said.

“We barely had the concrete dry and there were already bikes on it,” Seifert said.

A full cinder track, shot put pit and football field are under construction behind the Fred Thomas Building, where engineers designed a ponding system that pulls water from fields and nearby houses, which also improves drainage for neighbors, Seifert said. Fields will have portable bleachers and no lights.

Field irrigation has been installed, and workers will soon roll out sod so it will take root and be ready for sports next fall, Frederick said. The district ordered 8.5 acres of sod, Seifert added.

After construction is complete, Seifert said, the city will be undertaking a beautification and pedestrian safety streetscape project on Sussex Drive. 

Visitors to the Historic Lewes Farmers Market, which operates on Saturdays at George H.P. Smith Park during the summer and at Lewes Elementary in the fall, will enjoy better parking, Seifert said.

Seifert, who was an original member of the district’s citizen budget oversight committee and has 48 years of industry experience, said it is increasingly difficult and confounding to find large parcels of land within school district boundaries.

The state formula for funding schools has a mechanism that accounts for increases in material costs, he said. However, there is no market pressure for real estate, and many land parcels are outpriced in regard to what school districts can afford.

With all of his business and project management experience, Seifert said he has never had as much fun on the job as he has in the past one-and-a-half years working on the new school. 

“The district has a tremendous history of building cost-effective facilities and only raising taxes enough to pay for it,” Seifert said. “If projected costs are lower, we give the money back, and we don’t hold out for a contingency that doesn’t exist.”

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