When Harley Thornton returned to South Effingham Elementary School for her first day of fifth grade, the campus looked considerably different than the last time she had seen it.
Thornton and her SEES classmates began the school year Wednesday at a school that underwent a $3.5 million facelift over the summer.
“We walked through and she kept saying, ‘Mama, look, they did that, they did this,’” her mother Francine Thornton said. “So she was excited about it. It’s beautiful.”
The upgrades to the nearly 30-year-old SEES campus included installing new floor coverings, ceiling tiles, insulation and kitchen equipment, renovating the student bathrooms, repainting all the walls, upgrading the lighting system and replacing major components of the heating and air conditioning system.
Also, the gravel lot in front of the school was replaced with a new driveway and new parking lot. The paved area is not only easier to drive on but also provides more parking at the school, according to Superintendent Randy Shearouse.
“It was just gravel. And dusty and bumpy,” said Melissa Guzman, the mother of an SEES third-grader. “So it’s nice to have it paved and smoother.”
Along with starting school at a renovated campus, South Elementary students also met their new principal. Anna Barton, a teacher at SEES from 2007-12, returned to take its helm after serving as Springfield Elementary’s instructional supervisor for the past two years.
Barton described her first day as a principal, at essentially a new school, as “very, very, very exciting.”
That isn’t to say, though, she didn’t have some concerns the renovations would be finished on time.
Parts of the project went “down to the wire,” she said. For example, the parking lot wasn’t paved until Sunday, the day before the school hosted its open house.
Barton accepted the job July 17, less than three weeks before the start of the school year. When she walked through the SEES campus with her predecessor, Susan Hartzog, Barton saw that a great deal of work still needed to be completed.
“And I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” she said with a laugh. “Honestly, the first time I came into the building right after I was officially hired, I didn’t think it was going to happen — and it did.”
Barton and Shearouse both credited Pope Construction, the school system’s maintenance department and the SEES faculty and staff for working hard to have the school ready for the first day of class.
“They all worked together and got us in, in a pretty quick turnaround for the summer,” Shearouse said.
Teachers had a limited window of time to organize their classrooms. In just a few days, they unpacked their supplies and made their rooms “beautiful,” Barton said.
“What they’ve done is just amazing,” she said. “I didn’t doubt them for a minute.”
Portions of the remodeling are a work in progress, Shearouse said, as teacher workrooms and conference rooms still need to be completed. Some construction equipment remained in the school gym on the first day of class.
“The fire marshal approved everyone entering the building last week, and so we could have school — and that’s the most important part of that,” Shearouse said.
First-week enrollment figures are still being finalized, but Shearouse expects the district to have some increase in its number of students.
“There has been a lot of activity at central registration, and we certainly believe we are going to grow,” he said.
On the second day of school last year, a total of 10,827 students were enrolled in Effingham County’s 13 public schools.
Shearouse expects enrollment growth in part because people are starting to build homes in Effingham again. The school system also picked up a few students when the private Habersham School, formerly Effingham Christian School, closed its Effingham campus because not enough students enrolled for the 2014-15 year.
The first day of school had its usual issues, Shearouse said, such as traffic congestion from more drivers being on the road and bus drivers learning new routes. Otherwise, school officials did not receive reports of any major problems.
“It was almost like it wasn’t the first day of school, everything looked like it was running so smoothly,” he said.