Amanda Rodriguez and her family didn’t know Iola was building a new school when they moved here recently from Arkansas.
“It was a nice surprise,” she said. “To know the community cares enough to invest in something like this makes me really happy.”
Rodriguez and her son, third grader John Anthony Nicholson, were among hundreds of students, their family members and others in the community who got a first look at the new Iola Elementary School at an open house on Tuesday evening. Classes started on Wednesday.
John Anthony was mostly impressed by the music room. He likes music. He’s coming from a large school, so he’s not intimidated by the size of the new Iola Elementary School.
Fifth grader Jessa Ashworth, though, does find the new school a bit intimidating.
“I’m nervous,” she said while visiting her classroom and meeting her teacher, Karen Graham.
“It’s bigger and there’s going to be a lot more people,” she said. “But I think it’s pretty cool. It’s clean. I really like the attention to detail.”
The school opened after nearly two years of construction at Kentucky and Monroe streets, on property that was once home to industries including a zinc smelting factory and brick foundry. The soil had to be remediated to make it safe for the building.
Voters approved a $35 million bond issue in 2019 that also included a new science and technology building at Iola High School, which opened last year, and new heating and cooling systems at the middle school.
Some construction continues, but the elementary school is complete enough to start the school year.
It came right down to the wire, and teachers had just a couple of weeks to move in and set up their classrooms. Somehow, they managed to pull it off.
“A lot of family members helped. My mom came and helped,” fifth grade teacher Hailey Hugunin said.
She’s new to the district, which she said “was a great time to come on board. Everybody’s new so I fit right in.”
She also gave a lot of credit to the teamwork among her fellow teachers and other staff members.
Graham, a fellow fifth grade teacher, also praised the teamwork.
“It’s already started out so positive. I think we will keep the momentum going. That’s going to be the mantra of the fifth grade team this year: Positivity.”
Graham is an experienced teacher, entering her eighth year with the district and sixth year teaching fifth grade. She’s been part of the process since the school was just an idea, when architects met with teachers to learn about their wants and needs.
She saw the blueprints, and stopped in for tours at various points in the construction process.
“It was like going to Disneyland when we got light switches. We were so excited,” she said.
And how well did the architects incorporate suggestions from the teachers?
“I have a U-shaped table. I have a standing desk. I have plenty of room to walk around,” she said.
“So yes, they listened.”
A WALK around the building shows classrooms decorated with bright, welcoming colors. New furniture is designed to fit each grade level, with tables and chairs in various sizes. Cabinets and closets hold all sorts of supplies.
Students walked into their new classrooms on Tuesday evening and found their very own cabinet, with a place to hang their coats and store their books and personal supplies.
The sense of excitement and wonder could be felt in each classroom.
“It’s fantastic,” parent Kylie Cromer said as she toured the building and found the kindergarten classroom where her son, Evan, will attend.
She liked that each wing was color-coded to make it easier for students to find their way around the large, new school. Kindergarten classes are located in the orange wing.
“It’s up-to-date. I think it will be a really fun place for kids to learn.”
Many were drawn to the library, which serves as a sort of centerpiece. Not only is it centrally located, but it also faces the south and offers a dramatic view for motorists as they drive past the school on U.S. 54.
Library staff were nearly bouncing with wonder and excitement as they greeted visitors.
“Hey Trayvion, look at the new library! We’re going to have so much fun in here,” Daryl Sigg, one of the librarians, said to fifth grader Trayvion Trester.
“I’m just as excited as the kids,” she added.
Librarian Tammy Prather shared her enthusiasm.
“I’m so thankful our taxpayers voted for this,” she said. “I think we have the best library in Southeast Kansas, and maybe the Top 5 in Kansas.”
She’s grateful students will be under one roof from preschool through fifth grade, rather than the previous setup of moving to a new school every two years. Maintaining that connection and trust will encourage students to connect with books, too.
She also likes all of the little details, with comfortable places to read and study. Bookshelves are organized by grade level to make it easier for students to find just the right book.
“This space draws you in the way a good book draws you in,” Prather said.
Adult volunteers are encouraged to come to the school to read to students from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. each morning, starting on Thursday.
IN THE MIDST of all of the proud parents at Tuesday’s open house, perhaps the most proud were those who helped bring the new school to life.
School board members, administrators, steering committee members, architects and construction crews were all on hand to see the grand unveiling of a project years in the making.
After a devastating loss for a school bond issue in 2014, district leaders took a strategic approach to look at their options. They asked members of the community — particularly those who opposed the previous bond issue — to come up with a plan.
That steering committee spent more than a year having meetings and brainstorming ideas for what became the 2019 bond issue, which voters approved by a nearly two-to-one margin.
LaHarpe businessman Ray Maloney was one of those who opposed the 2014 bond issue who served on the steering committee. He was pleased to see the new school addressed his biggest concerns about financial savings and improved efficiency by combining three elementary schools into one modern facility.
“The roof looks good. It’s contoured. There’s no equipment up there. I think it’s going to last,” Maloney said. “And what’s more, we came in on budget and pretty much on time. I’m grateful for everybody who got behind us.”
Superintendent Stacey Fager beamed as he looked over the crowd gathered in the commons room.
“I couldn’t be more proud for the communities of LaHarpe, Gas and Iola to have a showcase facility like we have here,” he said “It’s responsible. It isn’t overdone. It’s a well-thought-out facility that meets the needs of our district, our staff, our patrons and our students.”
Principal Andy Gottlob said he was pleased to see such a good turnout at the open house.
“This is beyond all our expectations, to see all these families and students come into a school we’ve been dreaming about for some time.”
Architect Allison Le designed the school and was on hand Tuesday to see it opened to the public.
“I’m really proud of the community putting their faith in and the grassroots efforts to make this happen. It’s been a long road to get here,” Le said. “I had no idea when I started designing this school that we would have a global pandemic with COVID-19.”
School board president Dan Willis, who led the project from the earliest days with the steering committee and oversaw the finances and construction, said he is proud to see how the community grows around the new facility.
“The community made a statement in 2019 that we are not ready to die,” Willis said. “We’re already seeing economic development in this area. We’re seeing more enrollment. Iola needed something nice, and I think we delivered.”
“This building is something we can hang our hat on,” Fager added. “At the end of the day, it’s all worth it.”
Le agreed: “A community that invests in its children is always going to invest in itself.”