Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett High School U.S. history teacher Matt Neithercut prepares his trailer classroom for the start of a new school year. Neithercut served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman during Desert Storm. He holds a photograph that shows his grandfather, Richard McEwen serving as a U.S. Navy officer aboard a PT boat during WWII in the Pacific are of operations.
SUWANEE -- In the five decades since North Gwinnett High School first opened, the building has had various renovations and additions to accommodate the growth of the student body.
But over the years, the land-locked school that was built in 1956 and '57 and opened in '58, which consolidated Suwanee High School and Sugar Hill High School, has simply exhausted the land available.
"Everybody talks about nostalgia and it's great, but when it's old and worn out, when you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig," Principal Ed Shaddix said. "Suwanee was a different place when this place was built. You could have never predicted the kind of growth this place has seen in the last decade and a half. Those facilities were just not adequate for what we were doing."
When the school opened, it had 13 classrooms. Now, it counts about 2,600 students.
Thanks to money generated from a 2007 SPLOST, Gwinnett County Public Schools has begun a $10.78 million construction project at North that will add a three-story building, which will replace the original building. It will have a media center, science classrooms, special education classrooms and a technology education lab. It will also have a counselor suite and a large multi-purpose activity area. The front entrance to the school will also undergo a facelift, said Jim Steele, chief operations officer of GCPS. Steele said the project is expected to be finished by August 2014.
Teachers and parents have expressed a range of emotions and concerns about the project and how it might effect students' everyday routine.
Shaddix said school administrators have mailed parents material about detours and changes, and the school's Super Thursday orientation event was designed to ease the transition for the first day of school on Monday.
The most noticeable changes at the school are the 200 and 300 halls are no longer there, but the school has fewer trailers than last year, Shaddix said.
Shaddix and district officials have prepared for these changes over the last year, and have considered suggestions from teachers, parents and community members.
Teachers expressed a lot of apprehension and curiosity early on, but Shaddix reminded them at a staff meeting last week that their attitude would determine how the changes impact them.
"If you're going to be one of those people in our society that's going to look to be offended, if you're going to look to be angry, you can come to work everyday and find it," he said. "Because there are going to be things that happen that we can't control. Issues we haven't thought about; we're all in this together, and we need to make the best of it."
For example, at the entrance between the school and the football field, Shaddix learned on Tuesday that a sidewalk wouldn't be available, and a fire hydrant needed to be installed.
Each of the 24 trailers will have the same resources of a classroom in the building, including computers, television and a projector. But restroom facilities will be at the stadium for those in the trailers.
"If it can handle 10,000 people," Shaddix said, "it can handle 10 trailers."
While there may be a rare exception, Shaddix said a student shouldn't spend all six class periods in a trailer.
The biggest concern about the project, Shaddix said, was weather. Because the only existing entry point to the school is on the 100 hall, a weather chart was developed for every period of the day.
"We're going to have to be a little more proactive in our approach to weather," he said.
Because of the explosive growth of Gwinnett County in the last decade, trailers and construction are nothing new, and Shaddix said the employees at facilities and operations have construction down to a science.
GCPS students and teachers have become used to portable classsrooms over the last decade, spokesman Jorge Quintana said.
"Portable classrooms should not impact student learning as students will be learning from the same teachers and using the same resources," he said. "We've used portable classrooms before, especially during the '90s and the earlier part of the last decade when the district was growing by thousands of students a year."
For teachers like North's Matt Neithercut, who is beginning his eighth year teaching in a trailer, the challenges are arranging desks and chairs, and weather.
"Mentally, you just always know you're holding out for the promise of what's better, which is the real classroom, whenever the school board has the ability to provide it for us," said Neithercut, who teaches U.S. history.
As the district battles economic-related cutbacks, Neithercut said schools face the same thing many businesses have recently: doing more with less.
The construction project, though, provides something to look forward to for both students and teachers.
"It's light at the end of the tunnel," Neithercut said. "That makes it all the more bearable. I wouldn't say it's something we welcome with open arms, but we're realistic about it."
As he's learned more about the project, Shaddix said he's felt relieved that the project won't be as much of a disruption as some parents and teachers first feared.
"The only difference will be the kids up on that hill, it will take them a little extra time to get there and we've built that into our schedule," he said. "I don't see it being any different. We're using fewer trailers this year than we did last year, it just happens that a few of them are a little further away. Once I came to grips and really understood it, it was much easier to talk to moms who are worried about their babies being in a trailer all day."