Sandy Hook Elementary School students will find that volunteers have painted the walls of their new school green and white, their school colors. The movers set furniture, desks, computers and supplies in the same places as their old classrooms in Newtown. Volunteers pinned the same posters to new classroom walls.
The re-creation of Sandy Hook Elementary in a new location took hundreds of people in the past week. Locksmiths, plumbers, electricians, custodians, experts in fire suppression and security systems, as well as regular citizens armed with paint brushes, all volunteered time to create an around-the-clock renovation team, which peaked at 500.
Thanks to that effort, the surroundings will be familiar, including the school's mascot of three or four years — Shelley, a Red slider turtle that the students take turns feeding. She recently made the trip from Sandy Hook Elementary School to her new home in the library of a once-dormant Monroe school.
"They're going to come back, and if little Chaz had a desk near the window, he'll have the same desk by the window," said Steve Vavrek, Monroe's first selectman. "It's basically as close to how they left it."
After the Dec. 14 shooting that left 20 students and six women dead, Newtown officials decided that the Sandy Hook Elementary School students wouldn't return to the same building after the holidays. That's when Monroe offered the former Chalk Hill School, a middle school closed in 2011 and just months away from being named a community center and space for a local theater and ballet. Sandy Hook's new school is about 8 miles south of Newtown.
Newtown Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson, in an interview Friday, said most of the classes will remain intact, except the first grade, which lost the students in the attack. She said one of the school's three first-grade classes has just one remaining student.
Robinson said she expects most of the Sandy Hook teachers to be there when students begin classes at the former Chalk Hill school Jan. 3. Parents will have an opportunity on Jan. 2, the day when the rest of Newtown students return from their holiday break, to tour the school and reconnect with friends and teachers. The teachers will meet that morning.
"We're going to have a lot of support for them," Robinson said of the approximately 30 teachers and staff members from Sandy Hook. "Certainly, if they need more time, they can have more time. But I think many don't want their children — they own those children — they don't want them to be with a substitute. So I think most of them are going to try to come back."
Without offering specifics, Vavrek said the school will be the most secure in the United States.
"There's so many people from so many trades and walks of life," said Lt. Brian McCauley, Monroe's public information officer, who added that many of the contractors preferred to remain anonymous. "These people don't even know each other, but they're working like they've been partners for a long time."
Late last week, Vavrek said, he watched as dozens of teachers, students and their families walked into their new school to pick up their coats and book bags. "It's been gratifying to see their little faces," he said, adding that he saw many parents with tears in their eyes and that the kids eagerly hugged their classmates.
In transitioning the old school into an elementary school, the challenges were expected. After all, middle school kids are just bigger than elementary school children.
First, the urinals were too tall. So while the option of lowering them was considered, workers decided it was easier to build up the floor of the boy's bathroom. Another issue was having handrails low enough for the average kindergartner. Workers installed a shorter set of handrails below the existing ones.
Parent teacher organizations around the country are cutting and crafting paper snowflakes for the school, hoping to create a wintry scene for the students' return.
The move of an entire school from Newtown to Monroe, about 98 percent done by Thursday afternoon, was expedited by state and local officials. Late Saturday afternoon, eight or nine state and local officials walked through the halls and classrooms of Chalk Hill, which was closed a year ago because of declining enrollment and budget issues, Vavrek said.
The next morning, officials from both towns met to write up an agreement just before the sun rose. In 20 minutes, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy waived a state statute about transferring municipal property by invoking the state of emergency from storm Sandy that is still in effect.
The statute would have pushed back the process for weeks as mandated public notices and hearings delayed when volunteers could get started. Over that last hurdle, the crews began working. "This is how government should work," Vavrek said.
Monroe will run the outside of the school, the agreement dictated, and Newtown will take care of the inside, according to Vavrek. The move and renovation won't cost Newtown, he said.
Town crews moved the offices of Monroe's parks and recreation department, which inhabited the school along with the town's emergency medical technician since the school's closing. The EMTs will remain on site, just not in the music room anymore.
The gym is currently a holding area for equipment that still needs to be moved. "There's a room full of flowers that we don't know what to do with right now," Vavrek said.
And there's one more project they need to complete before the students arrive: changing the sign out front from "Chalk Hill School" to "Sandy Hook Elementary School."
An Associated Press report is included in this article.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times