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Construction of Wheeler’s New School Nearing Halfway Point

On Target for Fall ’22 Opening

Despite initial setbacks because of weather, an unexpected encounter with an old foundation, a few supply chain issues and some construction crew concerns due to COVID, the new Wheeler County School is still on target for a fall 2022 opening.

The $36 million, 167,264-square- continued from page

foot facility, being built with a state grant and proceeds from a special local option sales tax, will house preschool through 12th grades. By the time ground was ceremoniously broken for the new school in March 22, 2021, clearing and preparation of the site had been underway for two months.

Since the school is not expected to be ready for occupancy until late August, 2022, administrators are planning for a post-Labor Day opening and that means the system will have to have an altered calendar. “The administrators and I have started meeting about what this will mean and we will get input from teachers because this is going to affect everybody,” said Schools Superintendent Suzanne Couey.

“The school construction is about 40% to 50% complete,” Couey said, noting she recently took the Wheeler School Board on a tour of the facility to inspect the progress.

The new school is taking shape quickly now. “They are 89% finished with all of the block work inside and are now washing the exterior brick,” Couey said. Next will come the drying in, sheetrock, and window placements, then the finish work will begin. “We don’t have a lot of time for the other 50% of the construction to be done,” Couey allowed. But she is confident the project will wrap around August 23 or 30, 2022, as planned, although demolition of the old school won’t be done until the beginning of 2023.

“It is going to be a challenge moving out of the old building and into the new building. It is just going to be a scramble at the end of the school year,” the Superintendent explained. “It’s not just furniture. It’s all of the computers, the intercom systems, all the servers, all the switches, the Internet infrastructure. So there is a lot we are going to be doing at the end of May. That is going to take a lot of coordination and planning and we are going to have to work on that as well as the calendar for next year.” The builders, JCI/Lentile of Dublin, will be turning the building over to the school system in two to three week intervals as different sections of the structure are completed, which will allow the move into the structure to be done in stages.

With the roof finished and a big portion of the exterior brickwork complete, the two-story structure is beginning to reveal the external characteristics that will make it an architectural standout. The massive building already dominates the landscape and towers over the existing Wheeler County Middle/ High School located nearby. The building’s elevated entrance will soon boast columns that echo those at the county’s historic courthouse located a few blocks away. Arched windows that provide natural light for the staircases are a nod to another of the county’s historic buildings, Glenwood School, which features an arched facade.

The new school is being built close to where Alamo’s first comprehensive school was located. That early twentieth century building was torn down to make way for the current middle/high facility which has been in use since the late 1950s and which has undergone several renovations and upgrades in the last few decades. Once the move into the new school is complete, everything on the old school site will be torn down except the historic gym and its weight room/field house annex located adjacent to the school stadium.

Since the new school will accommodate preschool to high school students, the community’s elementary school, also located in Alamo, will close and those students will become part of the population at Wheeler County School. It has not yet been determined how the old elementary school will be repurposed.

The demolition of the Wheeler County Middle/ High School, expected to begin this summer, is bittersweet for the 2022 graduating class that will be the last to receive their diplomas at the old site. Earlier this year, these seniors, as well as all staff and students from all grade levels, signed their names on a beam that was integrated into the new structure—essentially becoming a part of the construction process and the future of education in their community.

As he walked through the building last week amid a cacophony of construction noise, School System Facilities Director Greg Wilcher pointed out various aspects of the stateof- the art facility that will open a new chapter in education in Wheeler County.

“This is the third school on this site. When the first school was built, (in the early 1900s) there was one classroom for every grade and everyone was in the same building,” Wilcher reflected. Having students under one roof in one location—as will be the case with the 21st century school — is not a new concept, he allowed. In Wheeler County, a lowwealth and low-population area, building one structure to house 900 to 1,000 students made sense both monetarily and practically.

In the design of the new school, first and foremost, safety measures were taken into account. The building will be divided down the middle with the elementary school on one side and the middle/high schools on the opposite side. The different schools will have separate entries with designated employees to monitor student traffic.

Other than on the buses, elementary students will never interact with middle or high school students. In contrast to the school’s current facilities, all buildings will be attached and everything enclosed, never requiring students to leave one building to get to another class. This does away with isolated spaces between buildings as well as various fire hazards.

The new structure has built-in fire detection and suppression equipment as well as its own pump to supply the necessary water pressure to extinguish a fire. Additionally, the school will have its own generator to maintain electronic networking and sustain the kitchen’s walk-in cooler and freezer should a power outage occur.

Visitors to the school will enter the building via steps or ramps leading to a columned, second-story porch. The spacious foyer on level one will be covered with terrazzo floors featuring the school’s emblem. The space will contain two separate front desks for elementary and middle/high sections. Electronic locks will control visitor access.

Wilcher explained that the elementary grades will be located on ground level and level 1 of the two-story structure. Classes up to second grade will include an in-class restroom and third grade classes will have in-room sinks. Pullout rooms, where one-on-one instruction or counseling can be conducted privately, are located in the vicinity of classrooms. The elementary section also includes a large multi-purpose room for physical education and a stage for various activities.

Every classroom will be outfitted with state-ofthe- art electronics for distance learning and other activities. There are two media centers on the first level, one for the elementary grades and one for middle/ high. Middle school classrooms are located on the lower level with high school classrooms located above.The lunchroom is located on the ground level and has a moveable wall to separate elementary and middle/high. The moveable wall allows for a larger space for districtwide or community events. There will be separate serving lines for elementary and middle/high students.

The building has six stairwells graced with large, arched windows, and two elevators, one for both sides of the school. Courtyards are located on either side of the school. A playground is located on the elementary side. Although special education students will be mainstreamed as much as possible, Special Education suites are included in the new school. These will be located in both elementary and middle/high sections, with each suite containing restrooms with a shower, a washing machine and dryer, and a calming room.

The school’s 1,000-seat gymnasium and vocational annex is connected to the main building by a covered walkway. Public access to the gym will be provided through an entrance facing the parking lot. Concessions will be located in the foyer at this entrance. The historic gym, which is the only structure from the current school not scheduled for demolition, will be used for practice, games, and events. This building, located adjacent to the school stadium, also houses the weight room and football field house.

The new gym wing will contain vocational classes— agricultural, mechanics, forestry—as well as the band room, offices, lockers and dressing rooms. The gymnasium’s ample court is large enough to be partitioned and used for two intramural games to be played at once. Even before the building was designed, staff and faculty had input on what the structure would become. They met with the architect three or four times through the process, Wilcher explained. In essence, the new school is a community endeavor and the views of not only educators but parents, local officials, and others were taken into account.

Wilcher, who performs the role of project manager, walks the building several times a week and keeps a close eye on the work progress. “The builders have been very good to work with. They have done everything we asked,” he said.

When ground was broken for the new school last March, Couey noted, “For many in the community, it may seem as if we’re just beginning this journey, but actually…we started this [process] in April of 2018.” She added, “When we started that April, our architects told us it would be about a five-year process, and that seemed like such a very long time.”

Couey commended the school’s board for “working together to achieve this milestone in our school district’s history. The length of the process is indicative of its importance to our community and to the great care that your board of education took in making sure that we got the biggest bang for our buck.”

Included in the groundbreaking ceremony program was a timeline of the board-approved budget: Preliminary Budget (March 3, 2020) = $38,625,712 (total = $42,125,000) Check Set Estimate Budget (August 13, 2020) = $35,153,536 (total = $38, 500,000) Final Budget [GMP] (November 24, 2020) = $32,834,744 (total = $36,000,000) State (GADOE) Contributions: $30,482,608 Local Contribution: $5,517,392 “Every single vote taken by the board on school design and budgeting was a unanimous decision,” Couey said. “We’ve worked through several changes to arrive at a budget that we are confident we will be able to repay with SPLOST funds (special-purpose local option sales tax).”

This source of funding is provided by the extra 1 cent sales tax that was approved by over 90% of Wheeler County citizens. With the state of Georgia funding 85% of the project and only 15% locally funded, “the final budget reflects a savings of over $6 million from the preliminary budget,” Couey announced.

In deciding on a contractor, Couey, the school board, and Wilcher viewed other schools built by various construction companies. “Some were traditional and some were more modern. We all wanted something more tradition-al… something timeless,” Couey said. The established design plans reflect that desire for timelessness, as well as a thematic consideration of the county’s courthouse, as six Corinthian columns will stand at the school’s entrance. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Leah Jones, the project manager with Altman and Barrett Architects of Valdosta, described the local motivation behind this new school: “The leadership of Wheeler County took on the challenge of providing a new, 21st century school for their students, because they believed the students in this community should have equal facilities as their peers across the state.” She emphasized the leadership’s consistent student-centered focus: “This sentiment of doing what they need to do for the children was at the forefront of every single meeting… As someone who works across the state designing K-12 schools, I can honestly say this was refreshing to hear.” Now, the project is on the downhill side, but there have been a few bumps along the way. “Every day there has been something, but nothing insurmountable,” Couey said of the journey she and many others felt was well worth taking. As she said in her comments during the groundbreaking ceremony, in the end the new school will be “a unique combination of beauty, safety, economy, and convenience that all Wheeler County students and staff will be proud to call home.”

VIEW FROM THE GYM – Greg Wilcher stands in the unfinished space that will become the court of the new school’s gym. He has a perfect vantage point from which to observe the work underway on the school’s front façade. The gym will seat up to 1,000 and the building will also house the vocational technical classes, band room, dressing rooms, offices and a foyer where concessions will be served.Photo by Deborah Clark

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