3 new schools open

Students strolling into three new Cabarrus County schools for the first day of class today will be greeted by the smell of fresh paint and improved technology.

Every classroom will be outfitted with SMART Boards, or interactive white boards, in the new schools: A.T. Allen Elementary, Patriots Elementary and Hickory Ridge Middle.

Located off Hickory Ridge Road across from Hickory Ridge High School, Hickory Ridge Middle has 48 classrooms and two gyms.

The school was designed as a smaller version of Cox Mill High School, which opened last year.

With 172,000 square feet, the middle school is equipped for 1,200 students.

The school is projected to have 815 students this year. About 51 percent of C.C. Griffin Middle School's former student population will now attend Hickory Ridge Middle, said Len Witke, Cabarrus County Schools' director of construction.

Hickory Ridge Middle will relieve overcrowding at C.C. Griffin Middle and Harris Road Middle, two of the largest middle schools in the state, said Ronnye Boone, Cabarrus County Schools' public relations director.

Next year, another new middle school, Harold E. Winkler Middle, is scheduled to open near Weddington Hills Elementary School in Concord.

Patriots Elementary and Hickory Ridge Middle were built based on projected growth. Before the recession hit, the county was growing rapidly, requiring the construction of schools, said Boone.

Growth figures slowed, but the schools were already in the works. The Cabarrus County Board of Education voted on redistricting plans to spread students to the new schools.

Under budget

Costs for the schools came in under budget because ofthe recession, said Witke. When the decision was made to build the schools, construction costs were high, but the economic downturn created more competitive prices and lower bids, he said.

Construction of the schools, including Harold E. Winkler Middle and an addition made to Charles E. Boger Elementary in Concord, are expected to be completed for more than $22 million under budget.

Patriots Elementary will be $3.7 million under budget, bringing the cost of the school to about $13.8 million.

The new A.T. Allen will cost $3.8 million less than the budgeted $18.7 million, and Hickory Ridge Middle will cost $23.6 million rather than $31 million.

Boone said this building phase is likely the last one for Cabarrus County schools until the population begins to grow again. The northwest area of the county is being examined for a possible additional elementary school, she said.

Advanced technology

Technology is the hallmark of all the county's new schools, according to school officials. Across the district, more than 80 percent of classrooms now have SMART Board technology.

In addition to SMART Boards in each classroom, each class at Hickory Ridge Middle will have two laptops that students can use at their desks. The school has more than 540 computers, and it's also prepared for wireless in the future.

Phil Hull, principal of Patriots Elementary, said he's excited about the technology available to students.

"I was at a new school," said the former Cox Mill Elementary principal. "But technology changes every 12 months. This school has technology that the other didn't."

Exceptional children

School officials also made a focused effort to improve exceptional-children classrooms in the new schools.

Laura Valentine unpacked supplies last week in her classroom at Patriots Elementary where she will teach students with autism.

The classroom has its own full bathroom, including a shower, as well as a washer and dryer and a complete kitchen, where she'll be able to teach life skills to her students. The classroom even has dimmers on its lights, a nod to the light sensitivity that some children with autism experience.

"I couldn't be more excited," said Valentine.

New surroundings

Patriots Elementary, off Rocky River Road near C.C. Griffin Middle School, and the new A.T. Allen Elementary schools share the same design, each with 111,000 square feet and a capacity for 1,000 students.

The new A.T. Allen Elementary, off Miami Church Road in Concord, will replace the old A.T. Allen on U.S. 601, which was about 50 years old. The old school will be used for staff development, office space and the county's exceptional children pre-school program.

Boone said she expects that students who were familiar with the creaky wood floors of the old A.T. Allen will be shocked by their new surroundings.

"Those kids are going to flip out when they walk into the building for the first time," she said.