Students in Hamilton County return to school today, and those attending East Brainerd Elementary will find themselves walking down brand-new hallways and into freshly decorated classrooms.
"I'm a little bit nervous for this new, big school," said 6-year-old Riley Horvath. "But I think I'm more excited."
Riley was visiting her new school on Wednesday with her mom. She was eager to point out all the new things like the model solar system hanging in the lobby, the brightly painted tiles on the floor and the candy that her first-grade teacher gave her.
Riley is one of more than 870 students enrolled to begin school today at East Brainerd, and many more are expected to register by the end of the week, said Principal Bryan Stewart. Last year, the school enrolled about 720 students and housed the students in two separate locations because of crowding in the old facility. But this new school has the capacity for 1,100 students, and Stewart is thankful to have all the students and teachers under one roof.
School board member David Testerman, who represents East Brainerd, said the new school has been needed for nearly a decade.
"East Brainerd is just continuing to grow, and this school is going to be packed just as soon as it opens," Testerman said. "This new facility is really a point of pride for the community and it will really be a premiere school."
East Brainerd is taking children from an expanded zone and helping with the overcrowding at Westview Elementary and Bess T. Shepherd Elementary. Stewart said this "megaschool" is the new model for schools across Hamilton County, and he appreciates the way a big school like this can rally the community together. He bragged about the diversity of students at the school and the cultures, languages and economic backgrounds they represent inside each classroom.
"It's thrilling," Stewart said. "This community deserves this school."
On Wednesday, teachers were busy stacking books, unpacking boxes of supplies, decorating brand-new bulletin boards and learning how to sync their classroom's Apple TVs with their laptop computers. Meanwhile, maintenance workers and administrators rushed about the halls preparing for today's flood of students.
"If you stand around, we are going to put you to work," one school administrator joked to parents on Wednesday as they carried in their child's school supplies.
First-grade teacher Jordan Wilbourn is beginning her first year teaching at East Brainerd Elementary, but she said this isn't the first time she's been on staff at a new school. She said everyone needs to expect that things will be tweaked throughout the year.
"When opening a new school, you need to expect to be very flexible," she said. "But I think we're ready."
Stewart said he has been involved in every stage of planning for the school. The building is 98 percent complete inside, and the finishing touches to the playground and landscaping will be finished soon.
He said he is most excited about the new library, known as the Media Center.
"This is the hub of the school," he said, pointing to the library located near the school's entrance. "We are bringing it all back to literacy here."
Librarian Nicole Galletta said the center is a unifying factor in the school, and the amount of planning and work that have gone into the space is a testament to the school's commitment to literacy. She expects the library to foster a tighter sense of community and allow her to offer teachers additional support.
For veteran East Brainerd teachers like Amy Ingell, the move to the new building is bittersweet. Ingell, who teaches second grade, has been at the school for 24 years.
"It is so big, and I was at the old school for so long," she said as she made posters for her new classroom. "But this is just so exciting, and I think the kids are going to love being here."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.