Back when it opened in 1979, Amity Elementary School was on the cutting edge of technological advancements. Featuring solar panels to heat and cool its interiors and grass on the roof, Amity looked unlike any other school in the Boise School District.
In hindsight, however, there may have been a reason for that. The school had a roof that leaked after every storm, hallways that humidified and solar panels that stopped serving their purpose approximately a year after they were installed.
That grassy roof was even overrun with literal versions of the school’s mascot, the groundhog.
“After every rain, snowfall, we were emptying garbage cans because the roof leaked. We would have waterfalls of water,” Amity principal Valerie Uhlorn said. “One of my head custodians had to be in the building 24 hours because the water was coming down so fast and furious.”
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On Monday, however, more than 500 students streamed through the open doors to Amity’s brand new building for the first day of the 2018-19 school year, Uhlorn said. This is Uhlorn’s third year as principal.
In March 2017, voters approved a $172.5 million bond to upgrade schools and facilities in the Boise School District. Included are 22 major projects, including a rebuild at Amity Elementary. Amity’s rebuild cost an estimated $13.9 million, according to the district.
Amity’s new campus features state of the art technology that its former building, located right next door on what used to be a playground, simply couldn’t match.
Included are bigger classrooms, a brand new indoor basketball gym, performing arts and orchestral areas and the district’s new Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, which used to be located at Jefferson Elementary School. There is also a Just for Kids childcare center for children ages 5-12.
There are also six murals spread across the school’s hallways, each with a different theme. One is of the solar system. Another is of a chemistry set. One of Uhlorn’s favorites has faded pictures of students from year’s past as background to the school’s logo and mascot.
The old Amity building was dark and a bit dreary, according to Tessa Jones, who is the PTA president and has a daughter in the fifth grade. Jones’ three older children also attended Amity; the memories she made walking into school Monday were different than any she’d held previously.
The new building even had windows.
“(The old building) leaked. It had bugs. The carpet was ripped up,” Jones said. “(Today) was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so bright. This is so beautiful.’ You had a good feeling walking in.”
In addition to aesthetics are upgrades that the school made for more practical reasons.
With school safety being of the utmost importance, particularly since events such as the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, the old Amity was lacking.
The new building requires badge access for entry to nearly all of its doors. Upon entrance through the school’s main doors, visitors will have their identifications run through a database for a background check before being allowed to proceed into the actual school. A single button can lock down the entire school and its door entry system.
Teachers and staff have also worked with the Ada County Sheriff’s Office to learn how to deal with lockdown situations, Uhlorn said.
“In this day and age, knowing what has happened around the nation … this is a building that is much more safe from a security standpoint than that (former) building ever was,” Boise School District spokesman Dan Hollar said.
Even the location of Uhlorn’s office was taken into account. In the old building, visitors went by two classrooms, the cafeteria and a preschool before ever reaching her office, which was located in the middle of the school. Uhlorn’s new office is located at the front of the new building, where she can see each and every person who walks in.
Her new view isn’t by accident; safety is always at the forefront of her mind.
“Yes, we educate children. But our first and foremost job is to make them feel secure, make them feel cared for. And it is our job to keep them safe,” she said. “There’s never a moment that goes by where I’m not thinking of that.”
Jones said she never felt her children were unsafe in the old Amity building. That being said, when comparing it to the new building, it’s night and day.
“I don’t think I necessarily thought it was unsafe,” Jones said. “But I feel like it would have been a reaction if something were to happen. ... Now, we can be proactive. If anything were to happen, it could be dealt with on the spot.”
For now, the school’s students had help Monday getting used to their new space. Parent volunteers wearing orange “?” placards around their necks helped students find classrooms the children had never seen.
The updated Amity still has that “new car smell.” Or something close to it, anyway.
“I said new house smell. It reminds me of a new house,” Uhlorn said. “Once the glue gets going, it will have new school smell.”
When she walked her daughter into class on Monday, Jones said she was reaffirmed in her sense of community. After all, it took a village to build the school.
“We couldn’t have done this without the community,” Jones said. “My community believes in the school and these students, that they are willing to pass this bond. ... It’s just amazing that people were willing to do that .”