Santa Rita Elementary ready to welcome students

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

To the young students walking onto the new Santa Rita Elementary campus for the first time this year it may seem overwhelming in size, but for those who have prepared the school for those students, they believe they have created the right balance that can make a school a home.

“It is absolutely beautiful,” said Principal Kristy Kline of the new campus. “It is just so warm and welcoming. That’s the first thing all of the staff said when they came in. It’s interesting because when you walk in there’s big huge open spaces, but in the student hallways they are just normal ceilings, not the big open areas, and there’s lots of color with each hallway being a different color.”

Collaborative spaces, the library and a maker space room connected to the library are all part of the warm, comfortable feel, where administrators and teachers hope kids can focus on learning in the right environment.

“We have collaborative spaces with soft furniture in it, it’s just this big building you might think would feel cold, but it’s so warm and it feels so good,” Kline said. “The collaborative spaces are unique. They have different types of seating, they have walls where the whole wall is a white board. There are places where students can go work in small groups and brainstorm. Our library is really special because we have some reading nooks for kids built into the bookshelves where they can curl up with a book.”

The excitement over the new school is not contained within the walls, with new playgrounds, now referred to as the backyard, and other innovations for physical education and play areas.

“I think that is a very special place and there was a lot of attention to the design in the backyard,” Kline said. “We have separate play areas for the little ones and for the big ones, we have wonderful playscapes and a really unique running track. It will be a space kids will love to spend time in.”

The finishing touches are happening this month, and the doors will be open on the newest addition to Liberty Hill ISD on the first day of school Aug. 27.

“The furniture is in, the playgrounds are in, all we’re doing between now and when the kids show up is finishing touches like floor wax and tweaking the technology system such as access cards and the energy efficiency controls to make sure those are dialed in,” said project engineer Casey Sledge. “Huckabee has done a great job on the aesthetics of the building, it’s very attractive. The space planning of the school is really well done, it’s just a good floor plan and good layout with a good flow for the students both inside and outside.”

The new elementary, set to house 800 students, was estimated at $32.2 million of the $98.6 million bond package when it was proposed to voters. The guaranteed maximum construction cost – which didn’t include soft costs associated with planning the project – came in at $27.2 million, and Sledge said as it wraps up, all signs point to it finishing under budget.

“It looks like, and this is a conservative number, that we are going to finish at least $200,000 under budget,” Sledge said. “The real exciting part of that though is we were able to add several hundred thousand dollars in new items to the project, so we would have been closer to $700,000 under budget, but we put a large part of that back into the building.”

He said the final accounting on the project will probably happen in September.

The new campus is 105,786 square feet and located on Santa Rita Boulevard, across from the neighborhood park in Santa Rita South.

As project managers moved through the project, they found ways to trim costs, and add value.

“We did make quite a few changes to the project after the design was done,” Sledge said. “I think we’ll always be striving to find the right balance of value and aesthetic. We want the building to be very cost effective and want it to be very sustainable, but we also want the community to be proud of how it looks. That’s the balance, and I think we’ll always be striving to dial that in tighter and tighter as we go.”

The district made a concerted effort to bring as many people into the planning as possible, something Sledge said reaped great rewards.

“The thing I’m the most proud of, that you can’t really witness when you walk up to the building is the amount of staff, teacher and administrator involvement in some direct decisions to simply get them the building they want,” he said. “It sounds like that would be intuitive, and you’d think that would always be the case, but every school is different, everyone has different nuances on how they want to teach, and transferring that into the building is not always easy to do and certainly not always done.”

The success of that collaboration can already be seen in staff reaction to the school.

“Walking through the hallways, talking to that staff and the principal, they’re so proud of that facility,” said Superintendent Steve Snell. “I have to commend our architects and our construction company because they’ve really done an excellent job getting that school ready for the first day.”

The technology on the new campus will not differ greatly from other recently-built campuses.

“The name of the game now with technology is flexibility and adaptability,” Snell said. “You really want a system that requires less plug in and more wireless. To have more wireless access points you just plan ahead and it saves the district a little money.”

Under current safety precautions, the usual fanfare may be missing from the big opening of Santa Rita Elementary, but the district is looking forward to the time it can invite the community in to see what the campus is all about. Until then, there are plans in place to create virtual tours to share as much as possible about the school.

“We’re very excited,” Snell said. “Normally that would be having a ribbon-cutting and a party and having the community in to celebrate everything that comes with opening a new school, but that has taken a back-burner to safety.”

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