Kendall DeLong, 4, has been excited about attending kindergarten at the new Liberty Elementary for more than a month. When the first day of school arrived Wednesday, it was her mother who wasn't ready.
“I'm thrilled for her, but it's sad,” said Beth DeLong, crying. “A new beginning, but it's an end too.”
About 35,000 Fayette County public school students returned to school Wednesday after a nearly 11-week summer break. Liberty was one of three new elementary schools that opened.
Parents at all three elementary schools — which cost a combined $40 million — said they were pleased by a smooth transition from old to new. They were doubly impressed by the hues of orange, red, aqua and purple found throughout the buildings, which house a variety of technological advances.
“I'm jealous of where she is in her life,” Jeff DeLong said of his little girl. “The fact that she gets to start this whole (school) process, it's great.”
While several students were excited about being in a new building, others couldn't help but still feel nervous on the first day.
“I've only been to kindergarten and first grade before,” said Alexis McKinney, 6, a second-grade student at William Wells Brown Elementary, which replaced Johnson Elementary.
But when she took her first steps into the building, her fear lessened.
“I thought, wow, I'd love to go to that school,” she said.
William Wells is considered the centerpiece of what officials hope will become a vibrant community on the site of the former Bluegrass-Aspendale public housing project. The gym and some offices will be shared with the community.
Differences between the old and new school buildings are stark.
All three of the old elementary schools — Johnson on East Sixth Street, Julia R. Ewan Elementary on Henry Clay Boulevard and Linlee Elementary on Georgetown Road — were built either in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. At Johnson, students and staff constantly battled aging heating and cooling systems, narrow hallways and few windows.
Still, Johnson remains in use this year. Arlington Elementary on North Limestone is closed for renovation later this school year, so those students are at Johnson.
The new elementary schools — Liberty on Liberty Road, Williams Wells on East Fifth Street and Sandersville Elementary on Sandersville Road — have state-of-the-art media centers and computer labs and spacious gymnasiums, cafeterias and classrooms.
Superintendent Stu Silberman spent the day visiting all three new schools — greeting cafeteria workers, custodians and students — and schools with new principals, including Leestown Middle and Booker T. Washington Elementary.
Silberman arrived at Liberty at 6:50 a.m. — well before his planned time of 7:30 a.m.
“I was going to come out later this morning, but I couldn't sleep,” Silberman said. “So I just got up and came on over.”
At a classroom in William Wells, he was mistaken for someone else.
“Dr. Phil!” a student in Katie McLain's second-grade class called out.
“My name is Mr. Stu,” Silberman said. “I'm the superintendent for all of the schools … If you want to tell your mom that Dr. Phil was here, that's OK.”
Like Silberman, teachers and administrators at the new schools were excited.
J. Michelle Hollingsworth, formerly a fourth-grade teacher at Johnson, now teaches accelerated first-grade and second-grade students at Sandersville.
“It's awesome but very different,” she said about her first day. “You can see how little my boys and girls are now.”
And she was thinking of her former students now at William Wells.
“I miss those babies,” Hollingsworth said. “I was on my way to school this morning and they called me and said ‘I'm not going to see you today,' and I said ‘I know, don't remind me, I'll start crying.'”
Sandy Mefford, formerly the principal at Linlee Elementary, said she doesn't miss the old building and hopes the new Sandersville facility will improve learning.
“We said that this was the last ingredient that we needed in order to take off and to be a top-performing school,” she said.
But Liberty Principal Vickie Burke couldn't help but take one last look at Julia R. Ewan, which closed during the last school year. She drove out to the school Wednesday morning before heading to the new building.
“It was sitting there dark and empty with no children, it was kind of sad,” she said. “But then I pulled up here and a big smile hit my face.”