Superintendent Chris Himsel paused while visiting an elementary school to note the time – about 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, exactly three weeks until the first day of classes. He already encountered two teachers prepping their rooms, and he would encounter two more before leaving.
Summertime classroom preparations aren't unusual, but these Northwest Allen County Schools educators had a particularly good reason to be there on a sunny July day – they're starting from scratch at Aspen Meadow Elementary School.
The school will welcome its first students – about 450 in all – Aug. 11.
The 76% of voters who supported a roughly $34 million referendum in May 2018 deserve a huge thanks, Principal Kim Lochmueller said.
“They voted yes, and the yes allowed us to meet the needs of all our learners,” she said last week.
The 7,900-student district told voters its elementary buildings needed the relief an eighth elementary school would bring. By 2018, enrollment had increased by more than 500 students since Eel River Elementary School opened in August 2009.
The referendum also included about $3 million in safety and efficiency improvements districtwide.
NACS awarded Mosaic Building Solutions a $25,744,660 construction contract, and officials celebrated the school's groundbreaking in December 2018 at 2650 Hathaway Road, a former soybean field, with plans to welcome students in August 2020.
In March 2020, however, Himsel announced at a school board meeting that construction delays pushed the Aspen Meadow opening to 2021. To remain on schedule, the board this past spring terminated its contract with Mosaic and hired Strahm Building Solutions and Dancer Concrete Design to address about $172,000 in needs.
Himsel said the subcontractors did a “fantastic job.”
Aspen Meadow has about 30 teachers. Staffing decisions were finalized early this year, but special education teacher Sherry Shoda has known since the referendum stage that she would likely move from Huntertown Elementary School to the new school.
Shoda appreciates having a space designed – not retrofitted – for special needs students, she said, noting her classroom's full bathroom is one benefit.
“I never had that,” she said last week when Himsel stopped by unannounced.
Five of Shoda's 14 students use wheelchairs, and she arranged her classroom furniture so there's a straight path in and out.
Like her colleagues, Shoda has much to experiment with when setting up her room because the chairs, tables, desks and cabinets offer flexibility. There are traditional four-legged chairs as well as non-traditional seating that allows fidgety children to rock and wiggle. Tables have adjustable heights, and desks – including those shaped to fit students' Chromebooks – can be arranged into rows or pushed together.
“I feel like a new teacher all over again,” Shoda said.
In the fourth grade hallway, Carey Charlton said she was glad Aspen Meadow came stocked with flexible furniture rather than having teachers buy items piece by piece as PTO funding becomes available.
She also raved that each hallway has a rolling ladder, a handy tool for bulletin board decorating.
“We're so blessed,” said Brandy Scrogham, another fourth grade teacher.
Such amenities didn't happen by accident.
Three administrators spearheaded Aspen Meadow's development – Lochmueller, the principal; John Miller, chief operations officer; and Bill Mallers, business manager – but staff districtwide provided input, including teachers, food service personnel and custodial workers, Himsel said.
Aspen Meadow's design is essentially an improved version of Eel River, which improved upon Cedar Canyon Elementary School, Himsel said. Features unique to the new school include a waiting area for parents and two work areas teachers can access without walking through a multipurpose room. Last school year, Eel River had 566 students and Cedar Canyon had 616.
In the cafeteria at Aspen Meadow, students with peanut allergies will sit at tables decorated with a child-friendly illustration identifying it a peanut-free zone. General seating will include a mix of individual seats and benches. That should prevent situations in which students are left out, Himsel said.
“The focus was always on, 'How do we make it kid-friendly?'” Himsel said.
Lochmueller credited Linda Vernasco, a Cedar Canyon kindergarten teacher, for the vision behind the whimsical media center. It features various reading nooks, flexible shelving and architectural elements that look like clouds and trees – alluding to the concept of getting lost in a book, Himsel noted.
The finished product is the architects' interpretation of a kindergarten teacher's ideal library, Lochmueller said.
“She just cries every time she walks in it,” Lochmueller said of Vernasco.
The school has embraced its bulldog mascot in signs and in décor, including a lamp with a bulldog base on the media center's circulation desk and a decorative red fire hydrant in the main office.
New athletic equipment – including crates of brightly colored volleyballs, soccer balls and basketballs – dotted the gym floor last week. The gymnasium features bleachers and numerous basketball hoops – equipment installed knowing community groups, such as youth sports organizations, use the district's schools, Himsel said.
Lochmueller is eager for families to see Aspen Meadow. She knows she won't be able to have long conversations with every visitor, but she hopes the environment she and so many others worked to create gets their message across.
She hopes that “what they see conveys our heart,” she said.