Open for Learning

Published 10:46 pm Saturday, August 15, 2009

IRONTON — It sits tucked away from the bustling North Second Street traffic protected by a wall of leaves that stretch from the oak and maple trees lining Delaware Street.

Contained in its own little valley, seemingly a mile away from everywhere, awaits a building that school leaders believe represents the pinnacle in early- and middle-school education. That wait has been nearly 800 days since ground was broken on it.

But 72 hours from now, nine grades of Ironton students who used to go to multiple-aged and outdated school buildings to climb the academic ladder will finally meld together for the first time under one roof.

Today though, the new Ironton Elementary and Middle school sits quiet on its final weekend before the doors will be thrown open for the first day of school on Wednesday.

Only the distant humming of cars and trucks rushing by on U.S. 52 interrupts the silence surrounding the 135,000-square-foot, two-story structure.

Everything about the building could be called impressive — and that is just on the outside.

Detailed brickwork wraps around the entire structure. Multiple playgrounds and equipment await their daily workouts by an onslaught of students.

Dozens of recently planted bushes and trees circle the building and reach for sunlight in the school’s courtyard where a reminder of the past — the original Whitwell bell — highlights one of the building’s key features.

But beyond the bushes, the brickwork and the bell rests the interior of a school that according to Ironton Superintendent Dean Nance “rivals any other new school around.”

Here is its story.

Despite being connected by a two-story walkway, the new Ironton Elementary and Middle schools are separate structures and, according to Nance, were intended to be that way.

“There really isn’t any reason for an elementary student to be on the middle school side of this building and visa versa,” Nance pointed out during an interview and tour of the building last week.

The superintendent’s message hits a point, as the school is so large an adult, no less an 8-year-old, could lose his or her sense of direction within it.

To help, designers painted the building with five different directional colors to assist student and teachers alike as to where they are located. Each color is designated to particular wings of the school.

Yellow and green signify the bottom floors while purple and blue complement the upper wings. Magenta is the primary color for the kindergarten wing of the school. Fighting Tiger orange accents each of the five colors throughout.

The colors even enter each of the school’s 50 classrooms with chairs and desks matching the décor of the hall.

A closer look at desks in the new Ironton Middle School shows tops outfitted with tiger maple, the prized wood that many of the world’s best electric guitars are built from.

At more than 900-square-feet apiece, each of the new classrooms represent 21st century learning at its best.

All are equipped with a pair of white boards that bookend a SMART Board for electronic programs and an overhead projector. Each is outfitted for amplified sound with wireless microphone capabilities for teachers.

Every classroom contains a telephone and a “panic button” in case of emergencies with one wall dedicated to classroom storage and technology with four individual student computers.

Sleek features include sensor-controlled track lighting that illuminates when a student or teacher enters the room.

The elementary wing has individual student lockers located within each classroom, while the middle school uses self-contained, combination metal lockers in the hall.

Each kindergarten classroom has its own bathroom while elementary rooms have their own water fountains.

Individual teachers can adjust classroom temperature five degrees either way from the median temperature set throughout the building. An effective, yet silent air conditioning system is available for warm fall and spring days.

Even the restrooms are huge. Accented with high-quality porcelain tiles and movement-activated sinks, each restroom has the capacity for nearly 20 students at a time.

The entire campus is handicapped accessible and includes an elevator.

The building’s common areas have all the amenities as well.

Its massive cafetorium is carpeted with state of the art material and has two LCD flat screens attached to its walls.

Its computer lab and shared library could match that of a small college and includes slanted reading tables and leather stools with custom “duck feet” base footers.

Each school will have its own gymnasium with the elementary school having a galvanized rubber floor while the middle school’s floor is tongue-and-groove hardwood.

No detail was ignored in the middle school gym either as the retractable stands spells T-I-G-E-R-S when pushed in. The colors of both gymnasiums continue the Fighting Tigers motif with its black and orange.

The building is even laid out with separate entrances and areas for parents to pick up and drop off and for students who arrive in school buses.

For incoming teachers, the move to the new building has been a long time coming.

“This is a dream come true for any student and for any teacher,” said first-grade teacher Toni Markins, who has previously taught in the district for seven years at Whitwell and West Ironton. “The move brings uniformity to the district and will help improve the students’ learning.”

Markins, who was assigned a first floor classroom, said she was impressed by the amount of space and storage teachers now have access to and with the amount of natural light each building allows in.

“Where I was at was dark and like a dungeon,” Markins said about her former classroom at West Ironton Elementary.

Mary Fannin, celebrating her 21st year in the district, said her kindergarten classroom is more than she imagined.

“I absolutely love all of the storage in the room. It is wonderful,” Fannin said. “I also like that the room has carpeting and its own individual bathroom and sink.”

Another perk of the room, Fannin explained, was the self-contained door leading right from the classroom to the playground.

“I think the students will be excited and with everyone now together, things should run more smoothly.”

For Nance, the opening of the new building, which used two-thirds of the district’s $52 million allocated for rebuilding its schools, is starting to sink in.

“I can’t believe the day is here, but on the other hand, I’m tickled to death it has come,” Nance said when explaining the incredible effort and at times concessions, teachers had to make to get to this point.

The remaining monies are being used to reconstruct Ironton High School on South Seventh Street. That building is on schedule to reopen for the 2010-2011 school year with students temporarily housed in the former middle school building that is within earshot of the new facility.

“I’m very glad that I had the support to oversee this project. This has been an experience that no training could prepare you for,” Nance said. “It’s an experience I’ll go to my grave with. It was overwhelming.”

Ironton City Schools will be hosting a public open house of both buildings on Sunday, Aug. 30 at 1:30 p.m. where tours will be given.

Nance said the entire elementary and middle school project came in on budget and did not require any significant change orders, saying “the state looked favorably that Ironton wanted the best” in terms of materials and equipment.

As for his future goals for both buildings once students and teachers arrive, Nance quickly glanced around the room from the middle-school desk he was sitting at and paused.

“I’m currently working on making these buildings look better five years from now than they do today.”

Based on the pride and excitement students and teachers have shown even before the first bell rings, Nance’s goal should come as no big challenge.