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New Sandy Hook School Reflects Innovative Educational, Environmental Elements



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By anyone's definition, the new Sandy Hook Elementary School is a community showpiece; a credit to the thousands of individuals who worked to create its welcoming features; an exciting destination for teaching and learning; and most of all - an affecting tribute to 26 souls whose spirits will remain close to Newtown's collective hearts for all time.

On an exclusive preview tour for The Newtown Bee, July 27, Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, Consigli Construction Project Manager Aaron Krueger, and Newtown Clerk of the Works Bill Knight pointed out why the facility could serve as a model for the way new schools are developed across the state and perhaps, the nation.

"It's extraordinary," Dr Erardi said. "I think what we have here needs to be scaled across the country. I think we've really done it right here."

"It promotes positivity," Mr Krueger added.

Dr Erardi said as a community school, he plans to offer the opportunity for any community member and parent to visit. Those open houses for the community at large begin Friday, July 29, from 5 to 8 pm.

In the meantime, the school has been intermittently open to other groups, from emergency responders to dozens of local realtors who toured the facility earlier this week - and, of course, to the educators and parents of students who will walk through its doors on opening day.

"I think by the time the school year is ready to launch we'll have had 5,000 or 6,000 people come through the building," he said.

Dr Erardi said every one of the kindergartners who were in session on 12/14 would be back as fourth graders this fall, and a number of parents from other Newtown districts have inquired about placing their children at the new school.

The school will also be the single site host for the community's preschool program, along with around 380 students.

When the superintendent looks around the new school, he sees what strikes many visitors - a combination of art, natural features, and, perhaps most importantly, many of the elements that Sandy Hook families most impacted by the tragedy asked for in the early stages of project development.

"The opening of the new school is not bringing [the community] full circle to the event. What it is doing is taking a large step forward. For people who believe that Newtown, and particularly Newtown's schools, have completely recovered - we haven't," Dr Erardi affirmed. "This is a large step forward for the staff and faculty of Sandy Hook School that have worked hard to make sure that it will be a fine opening day for 380 youngsters."

Innumerable Discoveries

From the moment guests, students, and staffers arrive on site, the warm and natural exterior features seem to reach out and embrace.

Undulating wood panels lining the front exterior mirror the surrounding rolling hills of Sandy Hook, and three separate entryways lead visitors across a swale lined with native plantings and a stone-lined bed that will absorb and direct falling rain into a huge collection cistern for eventual use on the school's surrounding grounds and sports fields.

The front exterior is flanked by familiar footsteps - dinosaur tracks that were once on the property, removed in October of 2013, and reinstalled a few weeks ago.

Artwork is incorporated everywhere.

Three weathervanes by SkyArt Studio and Gallery of Meriden illustrate in three-dimensions a bear climbing a tree, a mother duck and her ducklings, and a smiling eagle in flight. And soon to be installed in the main courtyard is a "Green Giant" footprint sculpture.

Carvings based on drawings by children created during KidsBuild! program meetings with architects at Svigals + Partners are also featured on the exterior of the building.

Those carvings mimic the colors and shapes of leaves, and the largest of them is mounted above an entryway to the preschool and kindergarten wing.

Like the woodlands that surround the property, trees continue to be a prominent feature throughout, like in the lobby where they seem to sprout from the floor and stretch to the ceiling through towering glass panels that permit visitors to look out onto the main courtyard.

Trees are also featured on some of the blinds in the building, and the cafeteria space was designed to inspire an overall feeling of being in the woods. One cafeteria wall incorporates floor to ceiling tile that mimics barnwood, and green acoustic panels hang down like massive leaves that actually help create a more hushed atmosphere in what is normally the most consistently clamorous room in the entire building.

Tree Houses & A Turtle

The "hub" of any school, according to Dr Erardi, is the library/media center, and Mr Krueger and Mr Knight agree that the library, the unique "tree houses" that serve as pull out space for staff and students, and both of the school's playgrounds have been highlights for youngsters accompanying parents on recent tours.

The library/media center is already filled with books, some on display and ready for prospective readers. Stuffed animals are perched on shelves alongside some books, ready to welcome newcomers. Art in the media center includes paintings of three past "One School One Read" book covers: Friendship According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney, How Do You Burp in Space? And Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know by Susan E. Goodman, and Mr Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater.

At the end of two upper level hallways the aforementioned "tree houses" have been set aside for teaching smaller groups of students. Like some who have seen the building so far, Mr Knight said the tree houses are one of his favorite areas.

Even from the exterior rear of the building, designers were careful to make the tree house supports more resemble huge tree trunks than circular steel support beams.

Then there is the mother duck - which was once known for making the center courtyard at the old building her space to raise ducklings. While she has not been seen at the new school yet, Mr Krueger said a mother goose brought three of her goslings into the building's main lobby while furniture was being moved.

Or perhaps they just waddled in to visit with Shelly, the school's turtle, who now resides in a huge tank installed adjacent to the school's main office.

Architects' Observations

Architect Barry Svigals of Svigals + Partners, who led the design team as it undertook the immense challenge of crafting plans for the new Sandy Hook School, and Robert Mitchell, who helped oversee the entire project along with colleague volunteers on Newtown's Public Building and Site Commission, both offered unique insights as they looked back on the process of bringing the new facility to fruition.

"We were all under a spotlight and a microscope as the process proceeded," Mr Mitchell said. "No school in the country had ever needed to be developed [with input from] the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, other security agencies, FEMA, state agencies, town departments, and then some."

But the outcome of that massive collaboration delivers what Mr Mitchell believes are "totally new approaches to school design."

"The elements we were developing were becoming the guidelines for the rest of the country. We are the leaders," he remarked. "I have been an architect for over 40 years, and I have never been part of any project that showed so much collaboration between the architects, construction manager, sub-contractors, and owner to create such a successful outcome."

Mr Mitchell said while current students developed art interpretations of nature that have been created at the new school, past students were asked what they remembered most about the former Sandy Hook Elementary.

"Then the Project Team absorbed the information and incorporated it into the designs," he said.

One of the many unintended but spectacular coincidences Mr Mitchell pointed out involves the aluminum leaf mobiles hanging above the lobby. For just a few minutes each day, the setting sun filters onto the mobile splattering dancing points of light throughout the cavernous space before its rays disappear for the evening.

He pointed out the three hanging bells at the main entry offering three messages - Children are Our Future; Literacy; and We are One with Nature.

"They are art that makes music," he said.

Another outcome of the entire process, he said, is that the school is well within the state guidelines for cost and for area. "We did not have to spend more; we just had to think more," Mr Mitchell added.

95 Percent Complete

With the facility more than 95 percent complete, according to Mr Knight, Mr Svigals said the design/build team continues to chase the many little things that will eventually be completed to bring every aspect of the project to a close.

"Moving into a building like this is a process that takes place over quite some time. There are so many complexities to it," he said. "So many people have great ideas about how they want to use this building and we'll try to make them happen over time."

Mr Svigals said his team aspired to create a project that might become a first-of-its-kind model.

"We tried consistently to understand more deeply what our role is in helping communities create places that are meaningful for them," he said. "And while we've completed five schools now, I think our greatest contribution was to create a process that allowed for the neighborhood, school administrators, teachers, past students, and others to offer their creative insights."

The architect said the insights brought to the table by so many helped the project to flower.

"This, however, was a circumstance that brought with it a level of challenge that we had never experienced before," Mr Svigals said. "It had an interesting dynamic in that it demanded we pay attention more closely and more deeply than we ever had, to what was needed. That's not something you know at the outset. It's something you discover in the process. And that kind of attention is essential in creating a space where people can contribute."

He described early on how the team asked fundamental questions about what people loved about their community and what they loved about their own education. Then the design team built on that communal sensitivity.

"This building is created through circumstances that allowed people to contribute in a more meaningful way to what the outcomes are going to be," he said.

As Mr Mitchell said, looking back on the process through the eyes of an architect, "You know it's going to be a successful project when you get more out of it than you put into it."

Education Reporter Eliza Hallabeck contributed to this story.

A view of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School's main exterior courtyard, featuring a small amphitheater-like classroom area, also shows off colorful custom window blinds that help reflect sunlight away from interior-facing classrooms. (Bee Photo, Voket)
A panoramic view of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School illustrates how designers collaborated with input from hundreds of community members to achieve a natural and welcoming facade mirroring Newtown's rolling hills, peaked roofs, and weathervanes. (Bee Photo, Voket)
A worker completes roofing on one of two "tree houses" that cap off two classroom wings at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School. These unique features appear to be suspended atop green tree trunks, while the interiors provide a quiet pull-out space for instruction or introspection, according to designers. (Bee Photo, Voket)
One of three public entryways to the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, this one adjacent to the gym and cafeteria features a massive and moving message that was, in part, created by SHES staffers who assisted in laying in the green glazed tiles that complete the huge "Be Kind" mosaic. (Bee Photo, Voket)
One of the finished second level classrooms at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School awaits its first class of students and educators. (Bee Photo, Voket)
Newtown Clerk of the Works Bill Knight stands in the second level lobby area adjacent to a set of metallic mobiles that catch and splash late afternoon sunlight through the cavernous space. (Bee Photo, Voket)
Vaulted ceilings in many of the common areas of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as in the library and media center, allowed for the installation of towering windows that filter in natural light to many parts of the building. (Bee Photo, Voket)
One of three weathervanes atop the new Sandy Hook Elementary School commemorates a mother duck and her ducklings who called the former Sandy Hook School courtyard home every spring. The building also features a weathervane of a tree-climbing bear and a smiling, soaring eagle. (Bee Photo, Voket)
Newtown Superintendent of School Joseph V Erardi, Jr, considered a reporter's question as he welcomed The Newtown Bee to the new Sandy Hook Elementary School for an exclusive preview tour, July 27. (Bee Photo, Voket)
One of two "Buddy Benches" installed at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School provides a place for friends to gather and watch classmates and friends as they frolic on one of the school's two sprawling playgrounds. (Bee Photo, Hallabeck)
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