Fort Lee school officials, teachers and parents gathered at the new wing of Fort Lee School No. 1 Wednesday for a grand opening celebration. The school gained four new classrooms thanks to Fort Lee voters, who approved a roughly $30 million referendum in January.
The bright and colorful wing that once housed the school district’s central offices was one of several referendum projects started over the summer of 2012.
Fort Lee Board of Education president Yusang Park and Interim Superintendent Sharon Amato agreed that the new educational space was a long time in coming, but that finally seeing it completed was exciting.
“We had some issues, definitely, when we first started; we had a lot of delays,” Park said. “But everything came together, and it’s definitely worthwhile for us to have this. It’s always a pleasure to see some goodness come to the kids.”
Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Jack Denichilo, who called the project “a labor of love,” explained those delays, saying that before construction could get underway in earnest, the district had to bring in asbestos and environmental consultants.
“We identified areas where there was asbestos,” Denichilo said. “It took us almost six weeks, but we abated the entire thing so this is an asbestos-free facility.”
Business administrator Cheryl Balletto, whose office used to be located in what is now a wing of brand-new classrooms for Kindergarteners and Special Education students, gave much of the credit for completing the project to Denichilo and the district’s custodians.
“They put in countless hours and went through a lot of headaches as well to get this all ready,” Balletto said. “And you have to say it looks a lot better than the brown paneling.”
The new wing, which School No. 1 principal Rosemary Giacomelli called “our annex,” features three smaller classrooms for two classes of K-2 and one class of third to sixth grade Special Ed. students and a larger classroom for 20 Kindergarteners. All of the classrooms have their own bathrooms, and the Special Ed. classrooms feature individual learning spaces “so the children can learn, and they’re not distracted,” according to Giacomelli. The annex also houses small learning rooms for speech and occupational therapy, she said.
In addition, each classroom is identified by its own color scheme on the floor outside the doorway.
“Red, purple and green are our smaller rooms that house our autistic children,” Giacomelli said. “And [the orange room] is our fifth Kindergarten class.”
She called Director of Special Services Ann Marie Bruder “one of the biggest initiators for this all coming together.”
“It was through her efforts that this whole idea of bringing students back and welcoming them into our community was made possible,” she said of Bruder.
Giacomelli said the next step, and one the school is “anxiously awaiting,” is getting the computer system and whiteboards up and running.
“We can really make this the facility that it needs to be—21st century—and it’s just really, really exciting,” she said. “Expansion is still happening. People in Fort Lee should know that we are not becoming a smaller district, and space is a limited commodity. So this has been an awesome piece for us.”
Karen Simone, who teaches the Kindergarten class in the “Orange Room,” said she’s still getting used to the new facility, and that the transition for the children was “a little difficult” at first.
“But then the kids overcame, and they love the classroom,” she said, adding that she prepared her students in advance of the move. “They were just very surprised [initially]; they couldn’t believe it. But they were very excited at the same time when I told them, ‘We’ll be moving in soon.’ They love this room; it’s very colorful.”
Rachel Van Nortwick, who teaches the third through sixth grade Special Ed. class, said her kids love their new classroom too.
“Prior to being here, we were in a smaller room until construction was finished,” Van Nortwick said. “They went from kind of like being in a box to being in this mansion. They have space; they get to do their own thing now, so it’s a lot better for them.”