RUSSELL - Nearly nine months after a summer storm thrashed the Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Middle School building and uprooted the start of the 2011-12 school year, students, parents, staff and community members took the time to celebrate Tuesday night in Russell.
Not only was it the 2012 "Showcase Night" for the middle school students, it was also an opportunity for everyone to come together and take assessment of how far they've come since the July 1 storm. For most, it's a year they'll always remember.
"It's good to be back (in the building)," said Ron Ries, RTR Middle School teacher. "It's been a long process."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Before and after photos tell the story at the middle school in Russell, which underwent a heavy-duty refurbishing job after the July 1 storm, including new lab tables and equipment for the third-floor science lab.
Massive renovations, to the tune of more than $2 million, were needed to restore the extensive water and humidity damage done to classrooms and offices on three floors of the school after the summer storm ripped off part of the building's roof.
"It was kind of a blessing in disguise," Debbie Honebrink said after the guided tour through the building Tuesday. "This is an improvement. It needed to be updated. Now it's totally renovated and everything looks fresh."
Dave Honebrink said that most things were brand new, though a few rooms didn't get touched.
"I think the big thing is, because they had to remove all the stuff, is that everything had asbestos in it," he said. "You have to do all that HAZMAT (hazardous materials) stuff."
When school began Aug. 23, RTR Middle School classes were held at Grace First Parish and the Russell Community Center.
"It was weird, but I kind of liked it better over there," eighth-grader Brittney Miersma said. "You could walk with your friends to every one of your classes. And, for lunch, we got to walk past the railroad tracks and back to school."
RTR seventh-grader Jason Honebrink said he missed having gym class down at the old baseball field.
"We had this wide open, grassy area," he said. "It's where we had football practice. We played two-hand touch football. It was fun."
Jason Honebrink said the best part about the renovation was the new paint job.
"There's a lot more vibrant blue," he said. "The painted walls used to be more of a duller blue. Now it's signature RTR blue."
The first day back in the RTR Middle School building for students and staff was Sept. 19. At first, classes could only be held on the first floor and in two rooms on the second floor.
"We were in the building, but we weren't in our rooms yet," RTR Middle School teacher Neil Witte said. "We taught in the gym, in hallways, locker rooms, you name it."
Things continued to be far from perfect into October, as teachers tried to retrieve displaced classroom items.
"We were in hallways and closets, trying to find boxes of our things," said Witte, whose science room on the third floor was one of the worst-case scenarios. "The rooms had been gutted and boxes weren't marked. Everything was just thrown in boxes."
Then, once items started to be compartmentalized in the gym, the boxes ended up getting moved into trailers.
"Everything got all mixed up again," Witte said. "The trailer was outside. It was freezing outside, but you had to go dig through stuff. It was a mess, about $2.5 million worth."
There was also the process of inventorying all the damaged items within classroom and offices.
"I had one of the best-case scenarios," said Tammy Borman, RTR family and consumer sciences (FACS) teacher. "My room was down on the first floor, so I was able to move boxes into my room and I could gradually dig through them. But then you had all these things you had to go through and inventory. It was a nightmare."
Witte said that teachers only had a small timeframe in which to get inventory completed.
"You basically had one to two weeks to go through inventory stuff," he said. "You had to get it all done by a certain time or the insurance doesn't pay for it. And, we had just gotten assess to it. You had to find time to go through inventory sheets and do all this stuff and still teach."
Most teachers were also forced to be creative in the absence of books and other teaching tools. The situation made for some memorable stories.
"It has been a very interesting year," Jason Honebrink said. "In some classes, we'd have one book, so there were lots of handouts. The sixth-graders were lucky and got iPads."
New computers didn't arrive until the end of October, so computer class turned out to be interesting as well.
"We got to work on the computers the last week and a half of class," Jason Honebrink said. "There were no computers, so our teacher would say, 'this is how it should work.' We did so many worksheets."
Around Thanksgiving time, all classrooms were in use, but most were without SMART Boards, bulletin boards and doors.
"For some of us, it was easy to go back to chalkboards or whiteboards," Witte said. "The new teachers, who have only used technology, they didn't know what to do. There was nothing you could but say, sorry, it's a piece of chalk, go to the board."
Witte said he got to the point where he asked his classes to help with getting the science room back in order.
"I finally decided not to fight it anymore," he said. "We ended up cleaning and painting, for a whole week straight. We had an assembly line because all the lab equipment had to be cleaned by hand."
After the tour, Dave Honebrink said he was impressed with the new science equipment.
"They've got better lab stations there now than they do at the high school," he said. "They're beautiful. The kids like it."
Unbeknownst to most people, however, the stations are not fully functioning yet.
"They just got the water and electricity hooked up to my lab tables (Monday)," Witte said. "I don't have my gas yet, though. I've waited as long as I can. When we were supposed to start using bunsen burners and all the stuff with labs, I had to put everything off."
With the end of the school year right around the corner, Witte said he's at a point where the class desperately needs to started doing labs. Like Witte, Borman is just getting to do some of the usual activities in class.
"It's nice to be in your regular classroom," she said. "Even this week, as things were still changing in the building, it felt like it was the first week of school with some of the things we were doing. It's fun to do some of that stuff that you didn't get to do because it wasn't possible."