The power of a dream

by Jan Spann

As English teacher Kathleen Gueringer looked out her class window, she wanted something better. The classroom’s view was a waterlogged atrium; she envisioned more.

A former St. Joseph student and now a teacher, Kathleen teaches eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade English and Honors English. With courses that often require attention to detail, she thought that a pleasant outdoor space would be a respite from studies for both hard-working students and faculty.

What began in 2015 as a simple request became a rolling ball of imagination, something far beyond what anyone thought possible. The first attempt years before, a Boy Scout project for drainage, was a valiant attempt, but didn’t work. Stone benches in the atrium had no shade due to a beautiful pergola having to be taken down, making them impractical, and the place became a waterlogged, overgrown patch of grass after each rainstorm. This square of green was unused, unwanted and unpretty, and it was time to make it better.

This third-generation St. Joe alumna contacted her family friends, architect Joanna Nabholz and engineer Justin Magie to determine the appropriate steps to turn the space into a properly irrigated outdoor classroom. With their assessments in hand, Kathleen put her ideas into a plan, including a timeline, funding requirements and resources needed, all of which would be in a written and oral proposal to the three school principals.

This is where Kathleen’s dream of something better morphed into something so much more. Fellow teacher at the time, Monica Lieblong, also had an idea to transform an indoor space, which also looked onto the atrium, into a cyber café.

“When I learned of Kathleen’s proposal, I knew we needed to work together,” said Monica, former St. Joseph ninth-grade economics and consumer science teacher.

The pair quickly took assignments and used online document sharing to write, revise and refine the proposal. Monica’s concept was to reconfigure a drab computer lab and also a limited use classroom, which years ago had been the school auditorium with carpeted walls, into a vibrant cyber connection zone. This renovation would include tables where students could collaborate and study in a wireless environment, much like today’s tech-savvy businesses. And why not include a menu with healthy food and drinks for breakfast and after school snacks?

Kathleen was also revising her outdoor plan to include a shade structure while learning the physical limitations of solving the drainage problem. The timeline required approval by the end of the school year so both spaces would be ready when school resumed in August.

With interior and exterior building modifications in the proposal, the process now jumped two levels. Because the Little Rock Diocese owns the school building, the process required that approval, and the Bishop of Little Rock also had to accept the plan. In early May, the bishop approved it and the real work began.

With just a few weeks of school remaining, Kathleen needed to remove azaleas and stone benches from the courtyard so the drainage work could begin as soon as possible. She contacted her sister, Laura Hiegel-Williams, who directs the St. Joseph After School Program housed at the old Boys & Girls Club location. Laura gladly accepted the shrubs and benches that students delivered and offered extras to teachers and parishioners.

Kathleen knew her strength would be the parents and families and alumni, and indeed the close-knit St. Joseph community played a vital part in the next steps. French drains were needed under the concrete, and sod and soil had to be removed for proper drainage. Because the building surrounds the atrium, the team couldn’t use big equipment to expedite the process. Through alerts on the school’s Facebook page, volunteers showed up to help.

More than 100 volunteers lined up from the atrium to the outside school door. Buckets of soil moved out by hand, and empty buckets returned down the other line to be filled again. The digging proceeded under the watchful surveying of Thomas Hambuchen for eight hours straight. “Seeing the progress on the bucket line was energizing,” said Kathleen. “So many of the volunteers were also students, parents and alumni, and we were all motivated by bringing something new to our school. Without each person that came those two Saturdays, this project would never have been possible.”

Carden Farms supplied sod, and another St. Joseph family, the Tiptons, with Conway Block, ordered the pavers, making sure the latter settled properly. Covington Properties installed the shade cover and two rain barrels to follow Diocese requirements, and Tim Nabholz served as project manager, keeping in constant contact and overseeing each stage’s completion.

Meanwhile, Monica and her team of volunteers removed the wall between the auditorium and computer lab, and the interior remodel took shape. Students helped stain wood wall panels, which José Castro, a student’s father, floated over the original cement block wall.

 “The hardest work was done,” said Monica, “but we wanted the reveal to be a jaw-dropping experience for everyone who walked through those doors!”

The Cyber Café interior includes large black-and-white photographs of St. Joseph students and classes from years past. A handmade conference table made by alumnus Lucas Strack, and another coffee table he crafted, was purchased and then donated. Both serve as signature pieces in the Cyber Café. Hambuchen Furniture H3 assisted with furniture, and art teacher Shannon Chamoun collaborated with the seventh-grade students and created the chandelier made out of recycled water bottles. Moix Carpet provided carpet and tile work, and Colby Nash painted the large interior space. “I could fill two pages of the names and services that were a part of this project,” Monica said. “It’s overwhelming, the generosity of the wonderful people of St. Joseph, both alumni and new families, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”

Kathleen purchased aluminum cattle troughs for garden plants, and Hambuchen Furniture H3 provided Styrofoam to pack the bottom so less soil is needed (a great tip for any large pot when you are using perennials and annuals with short root systems). Perennials and annuals feature school colors of purple and gold, and donated outdoor furniture brought the patio to life.

The surprised looks of students and faculty as they arrived for the new school year could be enough to make this story complete, but it’s not even close. The teachers have challenged their students to consider what else can be used better or differently, and to make usage recommendations about these two new spaces — and anything else.

Kathleen and Monica stepped back and watched what happened. They empowered a student board of six to oversee both spaces and café staff, which hires workers at the start of each semester. All seventh to 12th grade students can apply for positions, and payroll is paid in store credit. Events in each area are coordinated through the board’s schedule of events. Two managers share the work of ordering from the cafeteria and coffee company, work and calendar schedules, budget for snacks and other products for sale, as well as oversee the design of T-shirts. Students designed a T-shirt for the “Big Dig” Courtyard, and shirts and other items (like ear buds in case a lesson uses video) are sold in the café. Conway Regional Health System supplies bottled water.

Honor students interviewed alumni shown in the wall photos and added QR codes with YouTube clips of those interviews. Sophomore English students write grants as assignments. One group is raising funds to start a fishing team.

Middle school and high school students have held movie nights in the courtyard with popcorn and pizza. The alumni hosted a homecoming social, with many attendees returning to the school for the first time since their own graduation.

What started as a spark of an idea exploded into stylish and tech-savvy spaces and creative learning spots. It began with one person just wanting some flowers at St. Joseph High School and now has students and faculty looking to turn ideas into reality.

This summer, Laura Hiegel-Williams picked up the next phase of this project-based learning and improvement by collaborating with senior Cory Strack on his Eagle Scout Project to renovate the St. Joseph After School Program with a new gym.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader,” said John Quincy Adams, diplomat and America’s sixth president. He would be mighty proud of the people at St. Joseph in Conway.


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.