(TNS) — Almost two years after construction started and a little more than $100 million later, high school students in Decatur City Schools will attend classes Aug. 15 in some of the most technologically advanced and student-friendly schools in the state.
Just about every room in the new Austin and Decatur high schools has a Wi-Fi hub, and both schools have academic rooms where students can study or receive tutoring for advanced placement classes.
They also have medical clinics for school nurses, multiple storm shelters, at least five science laboratories in each school and a two-tier, buzz-in safety system that limits visitor access to students.
“This is a big change for students, but these schools are awesome,” Austin junior Lane Williams said Thursday as she walked to a second-floor science lab with classmate Sydney Self.
Added Self: “We’ve been talking about the school all summer, and students can’t wait to get inside.”
Austin's student capacity is 1,100, but ninth-grade students are staying at the old campus, which is now Austin Junior High. Decatur's 219,000-square-foot school is designed to hold 800 students, but ninth-graders will attend classes in the old science building. Both schools will have some students attending the Career Academies of Decatur on the old Austin campus.
DCS Project Manager Lee Edminson said teachers and students will have access to everything on the new campuses when they return except for the auditorium at Decatur High. He said this area is being delayed because the California-based company that was to provide theater-style seating went out of business.
Edminson said the district has received certificates of substantial completions from the Alabama Building Commission for everything except for the auditorium and a few classrooms near the auditorium. He said the classrooms, which are in the arts area of Decatur, will be ready sometime this week.
The district also received permission last week from the state to occupy the field house at Austin, and the team plans to practice Monday morning in its first on-campus stadium, head football coach Jeremy Perkins said.
“This is an awesome view,” Austin Principal Melissa Scott said, as she looked at the football stadium from the upper level of the school’s new 2,000-seat, arena-style gymnasium.
She was able to answer every question about amenities in the 231,000-square-foot school near Modaus Road Southwest and Shady Grove Lane, but the 1987 Austin graduate didn’t know the age of the black bear that was moved from the lobby of Joe Jones Gymnasium on Danville Road to the new school.
“I know the bear was there in 1984, but for how long I don’t know,” Scott said. “We still have to get his cage.”
Decatur has a shorter move, but some of its historic memorabilia will make the journey, Principal Johnny Berry said.
Two of the rooms he was most proud of were areas the school has named Alumni Hall and Academic Center. The alumni area will seat about 60 and can be used for school or community meetings and will house some of Decatur High’s history.
A former teacher and Decatur graduates recently formed an alumni association with its mission being to “plan and do things to support the school” and “promote the school’s tradition.” Berry said someone recently donated two yearbooks from the 1920s.
Sarah Beth Dunlap, a 2010 Decatur graduate and now soccer coach and history teacher at the school, said she’s happy to be part of Decatur High’s second history. The new features she is most looking forward to using are interactive walls that will allow teachers to project class assignments on walls.
She said a student can be working on a project, and if the student needs help, she can ask the student through Chromebooks to run the project through the system and it will appear on the interactive wall.
“We’ll be able to collaborate and help each other,” Dunlap said. “The technology is awesome.”
Berry said students will have the same capability in the Academic Center, which will have “nice, soft seating,” and double as a teacher work room.
“This is going to be a supervised study area, but also a place for ACT Prep and where students can come and get additional help with AP classes,” he said.
Berry said the larger cafeteria in the new Decatur High will allow him to remove one lunch session from the school schedule and add 27 minutes of instructional time. Decatur’s old cafeteria seated about 200, but the new facility can seat 350 to 400, and there is an outside area for students to eat lunch.
“This is huge and I’m really proud of this,” he said about the additional instructional time.
There’s also the pedestrian bridge at Decatur that links old to new and is a one-of-a-kind on a high school campus in Alabama.
“We’re the only high school in the state with a sky bridge that is fully heated and cooled,” Berry said.
Both schools have massive storm shelters and signs that identify where they are. Unless pointed out by Scott and Berry, the massive metal doors that will cover windows are almost unnoticeable.
Three years after eight students died when a tornado hit Enterprise High in 2007, the Alabama Building Commission began requiring “mandatory safe spaces” in new K-12 public schools, Edminson said.
The storm shelters, designed to withstand 250-mph winds, are located within five minutes of every classroom. The shelters are integrated with the schools, some doubling as classrooms, halls and corridors.
Enterprise, like most schools in the state, was mostly a collection of older buildings constructed in stages, and the EF4 tornado collapsed parts of the school’s science wing.
Edminson said Decatur High has storm shelters on both sides of Somerville Road Southeast, and Austin has three shelters at different locations within the structure.
The schools have connecting classrooms and exit areas, which means students don’t have to enter the hall area if there is a school shooting.
“This is unique and gives students a place to escape,” Scott said.
Austin foreign language teachers Melanie Lyles, Emily West and Deona Turner said the most difficult thing about the move has been deciding what to throw away. West and Lyles will split teaching time between the new high school and Austin Junior High.
Turner had been at the old Austin campus 26 years.
“This school is beautiful, but it’s going to take some getting used to,” she said.
John Cooper, who has spent 20 of his 30 years in education as band director at Austin, said the schools are the beginning of a new day for Decatur.
“We have the facilities we need,” he said.
Austin and Decatur will start student orientation and public tours of the schools beginning Tuesday.
Scott said Austin is giving public tours Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
Berry said the public can receive tours of the new Decatur High School on Thursday from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
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