116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — West Willow Elementary School — the first new school to be built in the Cedar Rapids Community School District in almost 20 years — welcomed students Monday for the first day of school, although construction delays limited access to the building.
Parents and students lined up outside with school supplies in hand and were directed to their classrooms, accessible through side doors.
“The best part of coming back to school is seeing the kids,” Principal Greg O’Connell said. “That’s where my heart is. I have to be optimistic that we’re all in this together, and we’re in education because we love our kids and want them to do well. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to have our spaces ready.”
Teachers and staff entered the building for the first time last Thursday, giving them only a few days to prepare their classroom for students. The gym, library, cafeteria, kitchen and playground and other common areas remain under construction. The main doors will not be open during arrival and dismissal, but parents can use the main entrance if they need to pick up a child during the day by using the doorbell.
The school will host an open house once construction is completed. The “silver lining” is by that time, students will know the building and be able to take their parents on a tour of the school, O’Connell said.
“This was not my expected thing that was going to happen this summer,” O’Connell said. “When we look at how much the derecho impacted our entire city, I look at this as a miracle that Garling Construction has gotten as far as they have. … I can’t speak of them highly enough.”
West Willow Elementary School, 6225 First Ave. SW, replaces Coolidge Elementary School, which was torn down over the summer. It was renamed as a part of a district effort to steer away from names that could be associated with a racist history. President Calvin Coolidge, for instance, oversaw the enactment of several racist policies during his tenure.
West Willow is the first new school to open in the Cedar Rapids district in nearly 20 years. The last school to open was Viola Gibson Elementary, 6101 Gibson Dr. NE. It opened in 2002 — and was the first facility built in 30 years.
West Willow is the first to be constructed in the Cedar Rapids district’s extensive 20-year facilities plan. The plan, which calls for fewer but larger and more modern elementary schools, is expected to lower operational costs for the district and address uneven distribution of resources. The next one to be torn down and rebuilt is Jackson Elementary by fall 2022.
The Aug. 10, 2020, derecho delayed work on West Willow by 12 weeks when it knocked down a portion of the newly-constructed building, O’Connell said. Supply-chain issues related to the coronavirus pandemic caused further delays to construction and to acquiring furniture such as desks.
There are about 446 preschool through fifth-grade students enrolled in West Willow. Two classrooms are remaining at Truman Elementary before transitioning to West Willow. They will join West Willow in October when the building is expected to be completed.
O’Connell said West Willow students still will have access to books even though the library isn’t yet open. “There’s not a teacher in my building that doesn’t have a lot of literature in their classroom,” he said.
Physical education will be held in a classroom and outside, O’Connell said. Students also will have access to Cherry Hill Park.
Students will be served breakfast and lunch in their classrooms.
This is similar to what students experienced last year because of the pandemic, when students ate in their classrooms instead of the cafeteria to maintain social distancing, O’Connell said.
Students at Coolidge last year also didn’t have access to a playground because of construction at West Willow nearby.
Amy Kuennen, a paraeducator and parent of a first-grader at West Willow, said the new school is a “good adventure.” Monday, Kuennen was outside in the rain helping students find their classroom and directing traffic.
She is vaccinated and plans to wear a mask this fall.
“Our first-grader cannot be vaccinated, and until she can and the (alternative kindergarten) kids I work with, that’s my personal preference,” she said.
Kindergarten teacher Julie Morningstar taught at Coolidge for 17 years. Now a teacher at West Willow, she feels the building is “full of hope and promise.”
Last Thursday was her first time in the new building.
“I feel very comfortable navigating from the entrance to my room and the places in between,” Morningstar said.
Comments: (319) 398-8411; firstname.lastname@example.org