Smiles - not tears - greet move to new elementary school

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Wed., Apr. 27, 2011
From left: Garrett, Presley and Timothy work at their table in Wendy Zajac’s kindergarten class on the first day in the new Griswold Elementary School building. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
From left: Garrett, Presley and Timothy work at their table in Wendy Zajac’s kindergarten class on the first day in the new Griswold Elementary School building. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

You know a school is new when even the art room is in perfect order, with not a trace of paint in evidence.

Phase 1 of the new Griswold Elementary School opened on April 27, as eager pre-kindergarten through third-graders walked through the new doors and into their new classrooms with their teachers.

It was a much-anticipated move into a $34 million facility that’s still not quite complete.

“I’ve been waiting a long time,” said kindergarten student Lucas. His class had come over to visit before spring vacation with teacher Wendy Zajac, but only briefly.

“First we went in and then we went out and back to our old classroom,” said Lucas. “This is my first time staying in the classroom the whole day.”

At one point early on in the day, Zajac’s students looked up at the ceiling in surprise. “We never used to hear people upstairs,” the teacher observed. The former school, built in the early 1960s, had just one floor.

Zajac, a veteran teacher of 36 years, also attended Griswold public schools as a child. “I was in fifth grade when we moved into that ‘new’ building,” she said.

Teachers spent a good part of this “second first day of school” doing what amounted to guided tours. After a kindergarten class got settled in Jeanette Kildea’s art room, she asked them to push in their chairs, line back up and walk with her down the hall to the bathrooms, so they’d know how to find them from the new location. Gym teacher Diane Langlais pointed out all the exits from her class space, then walked her class out their designated fire drill route to the school grounds. Other classes trailed their teachers to the office, so they’d know where to take notes or find the nurse’s office.

Everything from the size of the chairs to the squeaky-clean floors was worthy of remark by students and teachers. But one feature elicited the most comment: windows.

Zajac explained that many classrooms in the old school had no view to the outdoors this year. “They blocked them off due to the construction,” she said. Now the natural light pours in, especially in the art room and the media center, where floor-to-ceiling windows expose a view of a cheerful patio complete with picnic tables.

Langlais conducted her gym class at one end of the media center, away from the shelves of books. The open space where the students stretched was lined with folded-up cafeteria tables, in what Rourke referred to as the “media-café.” For now, the room serves triple duty. But when Phase 2 of the construction is completed, the school will have a separate cafeteria and gym, and the media center can sprawl to fill its entire space. That should happen in time for the start of the 2012-13 school year, said Rourke.

Some gym classes can’t take place in the media-café because of lunch. For those classes, said Langlais, “we’ll be creative in the hallways.”

Parking is still an issue, said Rourke. Parents will need to get used to the entrance being in the apparent “rear” of the building, facing the high school. Parking will be problematic for a while because of the construction. The only parking near the entrance is designated handicapped, so staff and visitors must park in the high school lot, which is already crowded. “Even the administration doesn’t have a place to park,” she said.

Even so, said Rourke, “We’re absolutely thrilled with this building.” She said that teachers and other staff “put in an immense amount of work” after-hours to move furniture, supplies and equipment over to the new digs, starting the first week of April and continuing over the spring break.

“The great part of this whole project is that we could take ownership of the school weeks in advance of the move,” she said.

Students in Lillian Sunderland’s first-grade class said they loved their new classroom, which is right across the hall from the art room. A few students named some of their favorite features of the new school.

“The nurse has a mini-hospital,” said first-grader Kaolin.

“The desks are so deep inside,” said her classmate Reese.

Sydney said her favorite feature was the bathroom sink, with its motion-sensitive fixtures. “It’s amazing,” she said. “Stuff comes out when you push something.”

The move from the old school was surprisingly snag-free, said Rourke. “I thought we would have tears, that we would have a lot of [students] wandering,” she said. “It’s like the first day of school in a brand new building.”

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