DENHAM SPRINGS – Connie and Oreo missed Monday’s first day of school at Denham Springs Elementary’s new temporary campus on Hatchell Lane.
But third-grade teacher Christa Sims said the guinea pigs will be back in class this week after riding out August’s flooding in her classroom.
While Connie and Oreo get a later start at school, students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade – divided on three other school campuses – reunited Monday morning on the same campus for the first time in six months.
“I’m sure we’re ready today,” Principal Gail DeLee said at 6:45 a.m. as the temporary campus opened next to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Hatchell Lane.
After August’s flooding, Denham Springs Elementary’s grades were divided among Eastside, Freshwater and Northside elementaries.
And Connie and Oreo have as good a flood story to tell as any student.
When school was canceled on Friday, Aug. 12, the guinea pigs were in the cage in Sims’ class. They rode out the flood there.
“When the water went down, I sent my fiancé to look for them. I couldn’t go,” Sims said.
Floodwater lifted their cage and sat it down safely on another table, she said.
And Monday morning, another animal was first oncampus, the “squirrel bus,” bus B-253, sporting its squirrel sign in the window.
Crossing guard Marilyn Schneck said the first cars arrived at 6:30 a.m., as she prepared for her spot on Hatchell lane. Fellow crossing guard Mary Sapietra was at Maple Drive and Adoration Lane, where all traffic will enter the campus.
The campus will have a one-way route, from Adoration Lane to the school, then exit on Hatchell Lane, DeLee said.
With loading zone signs and orange cones in place, teachers lined the sidewalk to help students off buses and out of cars and onto their new campus.
A bell sounded at 6:58 a.m. to alert teachers. At 7 a.m., another bell rang, marking when children would leave buses or cars.
Then it was greetings, hugs and helping adjust backpacks. Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students were gathered and holding hands, led to their classes.
The first order of business for grades two through five was a meeting with DeLee in the multi-purpose room.
School dismisses at 2:41 p.m., DeLee said.
The modular buildings, connected by a raised boardwalk, dispel any images of “temporary buildings.”
“This is not a T-building,” said Elan Armitage, a first-grade teacher. “It looks exactly like a classroom. I want them to come in and be happy and feel like they have a place to call their own.”
“Many of my kids flooded,” Armitage added, “They need the stability of a routine and their friends are here. These kids are especially bonded.”
“It will be wonderful to have four walls and our own space, to take ownership of a room. I’m going to be excited to see their reaction,” said Casey Robichaux, a first-grade teacher.
Teachers, staff, volunteers and central office administrators spent the weekend helping unload and distribute furniture and equipment while teachers unpacked lesson materials and organized their rooms.
On Saturday, DeLee stood in line with Assistant Superintendent Steve Parrill and Westside Junior High Principal Steven Link, holding a dolly as Assistant Superintendent Joe Murphy helped lower boxes out of a truck.
The boxes, quickly lined up on the concrete sidewalk, contained desks and filing cabinets taken to classrooms and checked off lists posted on doors of what was needed in each room.
“We’re blessed to be here,” added Sims. “It’s bittersweet,” leaving Freshwater Elementary, where the upper grades were housed.
“We made good friends,” she said.
One of the positive points of being on one campus now is siblings in different grades will be reunited, Sims said.
“This past week I realized how excited they were,” she said, “The resiliency of kids, truthfully, they’ve handled it (the flood and relocation) better than I would have dreamed.”
“Teachers are resourceful and resilient. I’ve turned a teacher’s lounge and a gym into classrooms,” said Casey Robichaux, a first-grade teacher.
At Eastside Elementary, first-grade classes had curtain partitions dividing the gym, but, “Some children didn’t realize they were in a gym. It was a mindset you give them. We saw it as a classroom.”
“A teacher has to teach,” Sims said. “We have to prepare them for the testing in May and for the next grade. It will take a couple of days for students to learn the layout of the campus and get into a routine.
“Normal won’t be here for a while. We’re coming back but coming back slowly.
“Last week we had a rainstorm and it was pouring,” Sims recalled. “They asked, ‘Mrs. Kim, is it going to flood?’ ’’
“But children find the positive side,” Sims said. Some lost their homes to the flood, but were excited to tell her, “They rode in an Army truck and got doughnuts.”
The excitement of reuniting is being felt not only by the teachers.
“I haven’t seen my ladies since August. We’re excited to be together under one roof,” said Alisa Bean, cafeteria manager.
Breakfast and lunch will be prepared at Denham Junior High, also on Hatchell Lane, she said, then brought to the elementary’s cafeteria, where it will be kept warm or cold in new appliances.
Denham Spring Elementary’s new cafeteria will be able to seat 180 students at a time. On the walls are photos of students taken at the three other schools they were sharing.
“The pictures will make them feel at home,” Bean said.
The teachers were quick to point out they did not reach this point on their own.
“Everybody from the School Board to our administrators and staff have worked to get us here,” said Renee Robichaux, special-education teacher.
And reaping the benefit will be the children, she said.
“Kids need that consistency, being all on one campus,” Robichaux said.
She said she was appreciative of Principal Jo An of Northside Elementary.
“She treated us like we were her kids. If there was an event or an activity, my kids participated,” Robichaux said.
The outpouring of support amazed all of the teachers, coming from other teachers in Louisiana and across the nation.
“All teachers like stuff. Stuff is good,” Sims said.
The many donations “that poured in,” Armitage said, will lead to her class bonding with a Los Angeles elementary class.
“We call it ‘From L.A. to Another LA,’ ” she said.
The California students sent letters with their donations, she said, asking “How are you doing?” “What is it like there?”
“Some of them gave their personal books,” Armitage said. She plans for her class to become pen pals with their L.A. counterparts. “They will write to them first,” to thank them, “then we will tell them about Mardi Gras.”
“This is the first day of school for the third time this school year,” said Robichaux, the special-education teacher, “It will be a new place, new routine and new procedures, but now we start over together.”