A black-and-white Sandy Hook Elementary School sign is back up on Dickenson Drive, and at the end of that reconfigured road, scene of an incomprehensible massacre, stands a sparkling new school with treehouses, brightly lit atriums and state-of-the-art security features.
Officials opened the doors to the new Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, the first time it has been open to the public since Dec. 14, 2012, when a lone gunman fired 151 shots in five minutes, leaving 26 people dead, including 20 first-graders.
There is no memorial to the victims inside the new school, although administrators promise there will be one. The classrooms where the students were gunned down are now part of an unmarked grassy area in the middle of the parking lot.
The $50-million school, paid for by the state, will open on Aug. 29 when 355 students walk through the front doors. About half the teachers who were in the school during the mass shooting will be returning to bright, new classrooms, each with its own digital whiteboard.
"The space is beautiful. The children are very excited for their new school. The adult reactions are a little bit less because they have a sense of why we are here," Sandy Hook Principal Kathy Gombos said. "You can't stand in this space without thinking about the 26 people who lost their lives."
Many of the pre-K through fourth-grade students who will be attending have already seen the inside of the nearly 87,000-square-foot school, as have residents.
There are about 35 kindergartners from 2012 who will be attending this fall as fourth-graders. The first-graders who survived have moved to intermediate school.
"Listening to the excitement in the voices of the students is a resounding endorsement we were hoping for," Supt. of Schools Joseph Erardi said.
Erardi was reluctant to talk about security measures at the new school other than to say "the safety and security in this building will be second to none."
Some of the changes are obvious — there is a gate at the entrance to the driveway where a guard will be posted to monitor who enters the parking lot. The front entrance has two sets of doors through which visitors must be buzzed to enter, and the windows have bulletproof glass. Authorities have said the gunman entered the school by shooting through the front windows.
Other security measures are more subtle. The doors to every classroom look like standard wood doors but are made of stainless steel and weigh 350 pounds. They automatically lock when closed and can't be opened from the outside.
The security at the old school is the subject of a lawsuit filed by two of the victims' families. The lawsuit alleges that security was lax and notes that substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau did not have a key to lock her door when she heard gunfire. The assailant entered her room first and killed 14 of 15 students as well as Rousseau and aide Rachel D'Avino.
The old school was demolished in late 2013, and residents voted to build the new school on the same site. New Haven-based Svigals + Partners architects and Consigli Construction Co. of Milford, Mass., were hired.
The new school is farther back on the property. A committee of parents, teachers, administrators, security experts and first responders provided an outline for what the new school should include.
The result is a wide-open, two-story campus with playgrounds, the latest in computer equipment and several nods to the old Sandy Hook — including a tank that holds 26-year-old Shelley the turtle, and a weather vane with a duck on it. Small plastic ducks became a symbol of the school after the shooting.
Tom Kuroski, president of the Newtown Federation of Teachers, said many teachers have started moving in to their new classrooms. He said although many were reluctant to have the school built on the same spot, the excitement is building.
"The teachers are pretty excited to be able to come back home," Kuroski said. "What they have done over the past few years is simply remarkable. This is one more step in our collective recovery."
The students and teachers never returned to the old school after the massacre, instead using a former middle school in nearby Monroe for the last 3½ years.
Kuroski said many of the teachers have already personalized their classrooms. In the one classroom opened to the media Friday, the teacher had placed a green-and-white sticker stating "Proud Newtown teacher" and a green-and-white ribbon decal that said "12/14 We'll Always Remember."
If there is anything in the new school that could become an iconic reminder of the shootings, it is a large green mosaic on a wall in one of the school entrances that reads, "Be Kind." It was donated by an Arizona-based group called Ben's Bells, which was started by a Tucson family after the death of their 2-year-old son in 2002.
Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, the city's elected chief executive, said the motto plays off something that slain Principal Dawn Hochsprung always taught. Hochsprung was the first person killed when she ran out of a meeting and confronted the gunman in the hallway.
"Our school is built on being nice to each other, as our principal, Dawn Hochsprung, always said and preached," Llodra said.
Llodra thanked Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, legislators and state residents for paying for the new school that she hopes will be a place of "laughter, community and learning."
"Our focus has always been on bringing our students home, and we are very grateful to the residents of the state. There is no way we would be here today if the town had to pay for this ourselves," Llodra said. "We would trade in a minute this beautiful school if we could change the past."
Altimari writes for the Hartford Courant.