(MONROE, Conn.) — When the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School arrive at their new school building for the first day of classes on Thursday, they will be greeted by their beloved pet turtle, Shelley, and a winter wonderland of cut-out snowflakes sent by well-wishers from around the world.
“You have to put on a smile and you have to just move forward with enthusiasm,” parent and school volunteer Karen Dryer told ABC News. “You have to make it the best possible place for the children. You can’t afford to fall apart or be afraid yourself. You have to just be really brave and put on a big smile and be reassuring.”
Dryer’s 5-year-old son is a kindergarten student at the school, and she is the class volunteer for his class who has helped prepare the new school.
Thursday’s “Opening Day,” as the school is calling it, will mark the first time the roughly 500 members of the school are all together after the Dec. 14 rampage in which gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six staffers.
The school’s new home is the building that used to be the Chalk Hill Middle School in Monroe, Conn., about six miles from Sandy Hook in Newtown.
“[It took] a great deal of thought and effort and volunteer work to make this as seamless as possible,” Newtown schools superintendent Janet Robinson said at a news conference Wednesday. “Right now, Chalk Hill has been transformed from a middle school to a very cheerful, nurturing elementary school.”
Sinks and toilets were lowered to elementary school levels. Walls were painted and the school’s mascot Shelley, a red slider turtle, has been moved to his new home in the library. Many of the students and their parents have already visited the new school and many more were set to visit at an open house Wednesday.
“All the kids love Shelley,” Dryer said. “Just seeing Shelley was a huge thing for the kids, knowing he’s okay and that he’s going to be at the new school.”
The paper snowflakes hanging from the ceilings were part of an international effort to send the decorations to the school. The snowflakes came from all around the country and world, from as far away as Israel. Some are personalized with messages on them.
“We just got this brand-new school and it’s all decorated and really looking beautiful,” she said. “The classrooms are all completely set up, all decorated really well because the teachers and volunteers put in a lot of time making sure it looks welcoming and somewhat familiar.”
She said the level to which the classrooms were recreated varied by class and age.
For kindergartners who need structure for security, the classrooms were meticulously recreated from the drawings on the wall to the crayons and water bottles on the desks.
For some of the older students who perhaps saw or heard things that were traumatic, some of the teachers have gone with new designs that are welcoming but not too reminiscent of the past room.
Dryer said that the community has experienced many “miracles” in the weeks since the shooting, but that two big miracles come to mind in terms of the school.
The first was the town of Monroe giving Sandy Hook an entire building to use for their school. When splitting up the school and distributing the members to other schools arose as an idea, it was rejected immediately.
“The teachers were up in arms and they said absolutely not and all the parents agreed that they need to be together more than ever. You cannot split up those teachers or those kids.”
The second “miracle” was the return of former principal Donna Page (pronounced Pa-jhay), who the superintendent Wednesday called a “godsend.”
Page is leading the new school as interim principal, telling parents it was her “calling” to return after the tragedy. Parents have dubbed her the “new old principal” because Page was the school’s leader for 14 years before retiring in 2010.
The school’s principal, Dawn Hochsprung, was among the first victims of the shooting. The school didn’t know how they would fill Hochsprung’s “very, very big shoes” until they heard from Page, who said she knew she was being called back to the school when she heard about the shooting, Dryer said.
Dryer knew Page from when her daughter, now a sophomore in high school, was at Sandy Hook while Page was principal.
“She’s amazing. She’s an extremely strong woman,” Dryer said. “She is the perfect person to come in and take control and lead this school and staff forward.”
“Once we had those two things in place, we felt so much better and then everything has been coming together and working hard to prepare the space,” she said. “They literally worked around the clock to get it all up to date.”
As the school prepares to officially open, security is paramount in everyone’s mind. There is a police presence on campus and drivers of every vehicle that comes onto campus are being interviewed.
“Our goal is to make it a safe and secure learning environment for these kids to return too, and the teachers also,” Monroe police Lt. Keith White said at the news conference.
A “state-of-the-art” security system is in place, but authorities will not go into detail about the system, saying only that the school will probably be “the safest school in America.”
Every adult in the school who is not immediately recognizable will be required to wear a badge as identification, Dryer said.
“They want to know exactly who you are at sight, whether or not you should be there,” Dryer said.
The first few days will be a delicate balancing act between assessing the children’s needs and trying to get them back to a normal routine.
“They want to try to get things back into a routine as quickly as possible, but they do see the need for some therapeutic days,” Dryer said. “They’re going to spend the first few days mostly acclimating themselves to the new space doing a lot of different things that will help them get familiar with the school.”
Dryer said that some children will do activities that seem like simple, fun games, but are actually providing some therapy and giving adults a chance to assess where they are.
Now that the construction is finished, the walls are painted and the decorations hung, Robinson said that the only missing piece is the children.
“I think they’ll feel welcome as they come through the front door,” Lt. White said. “Their teachers eagerly await to meet them again and move forward from this point.”
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