NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — The new Sandy Hook Elementary School opened to the general public for the first time Friday, containing no obvious memorials to the 26 people who died inside the old school nearly four years ago but created with them in mind.
The $50 million replacement for the school torn down after the December 2012 massacre was designed in a forest theme with the goal of being attractive, environmentally friendly, conducive to learning and, above all, safe.
Visitors will need to pass through a driveway gate, across a moat-like rain garden and past two police officers and a video monitoring system to get inside. Once there, they’ll find 86,000 square feet of art-filled space with three courtyards, lots of windows (all bulletproof) and indoor nooks designed to look like treehouses.
“Let me state unequivocally that we would trade in a minute this beautiful new school for the more familiar and ancient Sandy Hook school, built in the ’50s, if we could just change the past,” said Pat Llodra, the town’s first selectman.
The school was built on the same property but not in the old footprint. All that remains are two large concrete slabs containing dinosaur footprints that also sat outside the old building.
Local officials hope allowing people to take a look at the school this week will give students a “quiet, respectful, and appropriate opening as teachers and students return to the new school year” on Aug. 29, Superintendent Joseph Erardi said.
The new school, funded by a state grant, has numerous safety features. Its ground floor is elevated, making it harder to see inside classrooms from the outside. It has been landscaped to ensure anyone approaching is visible to those inside.
“Our goal was to create a place of community and learning, a place that would honor those we lost and allow those who were left behind the chance to move forward,” Llodra said.
In the years since the massacre, Sandy Hook students have been attending school in neighboring Monroe, which renovated a previously closed elementary school after the shooting. The new school, like the old, will serve students from prekindergarten through fourth grade.
There will be about 390 students enrolled this fall, and 70 of those, all now fourth-graders, were students at the old school when the shooting occurred, Erardi said. About 35 of them were in the building at the time, he said, attending the morning kindergarten session.
None of them witnessed the shootings, which occurred before the afternoon kindergarten session began and left 20 first-graders dead.
Because of retirements and transfers, about 60 percent of the staff members from the original Sandy Hook are still with the school, he said. Others left through retirement or job changes, and a handful chose to transfer as part of their personal recovery process, he said.
The district will provide returning students and staff with special resources to help them cope, Erardi said.
Teachers were asked for their input on a school location, and none wanted to return to this property, said Tom Kuroski, president of the Newtown Federation of Teachers.
Sandy Hook Principal Kathy Gombos said she expects the transition to be difficult emotionally. But so far, she said, teachers, parents and students who have toured the new building have been smiling.
“There have been some tears, but I think after they spend about an hour or so here, they feel like it’s going to be an unbelievable learning space for kids,” said Gombos, whose predecessor, Principal Dawn Hochsprung, was killed that day.
The only obvious remembrance of the shooting was a green magnet on a refrigerator in one classroom that was designed to resemble a memorial ribbon with the date of the shooting on it and the words, “We’ll always remember.”
Erardi said he still meets with affected families to discuss how they want their loved ones to be remembered at the school. But he said those conversations remain confidential.