A building is demolished Monday to make way for a practice gym for John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor. The structure was a former Jewish Community Center. Credit: Gabor Degre

John Bapst High School’s first expansion in almost a century is one step closer to starting, after a contractor on Tuesday tore down the old Jewish Community Center building at the corner of French and Somerset streets.

Starting in the next couple months, school officials hope to start the construction of a new $3.5 million gymnasium and fitness center on that site, near the main school building on Broadway.

[John Bapst plans $6.5 million renovation, expansion]

The private school acquired the former Jewish Community Center in the 1990s and has used it mainly for storage. The firm R.F. Jordan and Sons knocked it down Tuesday and will probably spend several days removing the debris, according to John Bapst’s head of school, Mel MacKay.

MacKay said that he hopes the construction of the 15,000-square-foot gymnasium and fitness center can begin in late spring or early summer, then finish by the 2020-21 school year.

Once complete, the gymnasium will only be used for athletics practice, as the tightly packed residential area around the school cannot accommodate more than 25 parking spaces, and the school’s basketball games will continue to be held at the Cross Insurance Center.

The construction will be funded by a mix of donations and construction loans, and carried out by the Brewer firm Nickerson & O’Day, Inc.

MacKay said the new practice gym and fitness center will help the school deliver a well-rounded education. Besides giving sports teams a new space in which to practice, it will also allow kids to exercise with weights, treadmills and other equipment.

Students “can take all the AP classes in the world, but their needs aren’t just met through academics,” he said. “If they’re smart kids, they’re going to be active kids. If they’re active kids, they’re going to be creative kids.”

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The construction of the building is the first phase of a larger project. In the second phase, the school will renovate the space on its bottom floor that’s currently its gym and locker rooms, replacing them with a new dining hall and kitchen for $950,000, and a $500,000 robotics and engineering classroom.

The entire campaign is expected to cost about $7.5 million, of which the school has so far raised about $4.5 million, MacKay said. It will be adding $1 million of that amount to its $1.3 million endowment.

Since opening in 1928, John Bapst served for about 60 years as a co-ed Catholic parochial school before reopening as a secular, private college-prep high school.

It now has about 470 students from Maine and other countries, including China, South Korea and Vietnam. It boards about 50 of them in nearby residential buildings that it has acquired over the years.

But the school is overdue to add a new building that “demonstrates our strength in a new visible or palpable way,” MacKay said.

Watch: John Bapst High School 2015 fire cleanup gets underway

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