Mr. John Mathews Shares his Vision for the Planned Middle School Renovations

Potomac’s Head of the MS predicts students will revel in the new collaborative spaces


A rendering of the planned remodeling of the Middle School

Kate Choi, Editor-in-Chief

Following the successful opening of the breathtaking 76,000-square-foot Spangler Center in 2019, it’s now the turn of the Middle School to get its makeover. While the Upper School was largely rebuilt in 2008 and the LS was remodeled in 2016, the MS building has, so far, been stuck in the 1950s. The planned revamp aims to transform the existing space of the MS into a more vibrant and versatile learning environment with spaces that promote collaboration, creativity, and student engagement.

Upper School students with fond memories of their younger selves in the MS, including Bella Kim ‘25 and Ellu Lu ’25, expressed their excitement upon hearing about the plans. Ella said that the prospect of an MS renovation makes her “feel nostalgic” as she is reminded of all of the happy memories the school building brought her.

To learn more, The Current sat down with a noticeably excited Mr. John Mathews, the Head of the Middle School, to discuss Potomac’s plans for the renovation.

Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Could you give a brief overview of the renovation plans?
We are trying to achieve an improvement of the space to accommodate the program, so that the wonderful things about middle school can be continued and enhanced. What do we want? We want kids to be able to stretch out and learn and move and have places to do small group work and big group work. We want places to gather, we want places to play.

One of the things we’ve realized is that we have lovely classrooms. But sometimes they’re different sizes. And sometimes there isn’t a lot of space to spill out. So the first thing to know is that all of the classrooms would be the same size.

Part of the design is to have a connector so that students can go to their Spanish and science classes in the Intermediate School. It’s a little bit like a bridge.

The other thing is to accomplish something that we think the Middle School really needs, which is a gathering space. Just as there’s the Crossroads in the Upper School and the Commons in the Intermediate School, there’s going to be a Middle School gathering space in the footprint of where the sixth grade wing is now. Where the llamas are is going to be kind of a new green space. Also, the multi-floor gathering space is going to be where the Middle School Square is. The space will be created with a lot of glass to look into the Pingree garden, and will maybe even allow us to walk into the garden when we have assemblies.

On the upper floor will be some loungy space where I imagine the sixth graders will have kind of like a senior lounge.
Part of the renovation is to also capitalize on things that are growing and exciting. In middle school, specifically, science and robotics. There’s a plan for a brand new robotics studio attached to a new science room. And it also connects to the current Preston gym footprint. There’s going to be ideally a spiral staircase at the end of the Preston gym where folks can go upstairs and do all sorts of science experiments. The walkway that I mentioned will go from the sixth grade floor, across the top of the Preston gym, and into the IS.

There’s also going to be a counseling suite to address mental health. All the counselors, K-12, will have new offices and there’ll be place for folks to hang out. In addition, we’re also going to renovate the playgrounds. And when I say playgrounds, we’re going to work with landscape architects to do both the Lower School and the Middle School playgrounds.

Where will the middle school students go while the renovation is in process?

Great question. The answer is, we don’t know. What we want to do is utilize the existing space in the buildings that we have now by shifting some books over and repurposing some current classrooms in order to maximize that ability the most. But we haven’t finalized that plan. Because right now what we’re thinking about is creating interest in the project and figuring out when we’re going to actually build. I can’t imagine we can renovate without having some temporary spaces. But needless to say, we want to use our current spaces and repurpose them. For example, the library could be used for classrooms, because we’re not renovating the library, and then the books in the library could be put somewhere else.

Do you have an idea of when the project will happen?

So that’s definitely the biggest question. The first thing is, as you probably heard this about Spangler too, is that the school wants to build our endowment. This whole plan is hopefully being done without adding debt to the school’s balance sheet. We want to try to get a certain percentage of money pledged before we put shovels in the ground. But the dream is to start construction in June of 2024 and to end September of 2025. So the project will take a summer, a year, and a summer.

What are some of the things you’re most excited about with the renovation?
So it’s funny, I’m so excited about the the gym with the spiral staircase and everything I mentioned. But I think one of the things I’m most excited about is how the classrooms will be as good as they are and better. The classrooms themselves are going to be pretty flexible, there’s going to be a niche for every classroom that teachers can use differently. The furniture will be flexible so that teachers can actually put their own stamp on a rectangle that is exactly the same size as the person across the hall. And then grade levels will sort of be in their own pods. I am also excited for holding grade level assemblies. And I think above everything else, I’m super excited to see kids playing in the new quad by the llamas, coming into the gathering space and hanging out, and then going through to the Pingree garden, which I feel like is a beautiful space that’s kind of been under used.

What do you think students will most look forward to with the renovation?
I bet that the the kids who like science will look forward to the new science space. And then I think the sixth graders will probably be really excited to be on that upper floor. I also think we’ll probably involve kids in the thought process of the renovation. Kids will be really excited about the recess space.