GREENSBORO — Michael Merritt lives across the street from the muddy field where Peeler Elementary School used to stand.
Earlier this month, after he saw the early designs for the new school to be built there, his excitement for the new school increased, as he imagined two of his children possibly attending in a few years.
“That’s going to be nice, right there,” he said. “I can’t wait.”
Last month, the Guilford County Board of Education took a first look at early drafts of conceptual designs for the new visual and performing arts magnet school. The district tentatively expects to complete it in April 2024 and open it for students that fall. It’s planned as a replacement for two of the three elementary school buildings shuttered after a tornado hit East Greensboro in 2018.
Superintendent Sharon Contreras told the board the district had also conducted a community meeting where it presented some of the design concepts for the new school.
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“There were people in the audience who cried,” she said. “They remembered the tornado, the day of the tornado and cried when they saw this. They also remembered the schools were in terrible shape before the tornado and are just overwhelmed by what they are seeing.”
That 2018 storm hit on a Sunday, so there weren’t any children in the buildings at the time, but the damage and mess of the storm forced the district to relocate students and staff to other schools. Instead of trying to repair the aging buildings that already had problems before the tornado, leaders eventually opted to start planning for replacement as part of a larger facilities master plan for the whole district.
Architects and school leaders are now working together on designs for the eight construction projects slated to be completed as part of the first phase of that master plan. Most are also tentatively scheduled for completion in April 2024.
The county is borrowing to pay for the projects by selling bonds. Voters gave the county the go-ahead for the first round of projects in 2020 and will consider another round of bonds for additional projects on the ballot this May.
The new visual and performing arts magnet school on the former Peeler Elementary School site is designed to replace both Hampton and Peeler elementary schools. The estimated budget for the school is $33.5 million, according to the district’s website. That is similar to most of the other elementary schools to be built in the first phase.
Most of the school will be concentrated on the first of three levels. The other two levels are much smaller.
That first floor centers on the “performance commons,” a wide-open, multipurpose area with various types of seating located just in front of a stage.
“It is a common space for students to grow together in their learning but also for community to gather in the evenings when appropriate,” said DLR Group Principal Architect Jason Lembke.
The second and third floors each have their own commons areas, and the designs also show gathering spaces for students and adults on the building’s roofs.
Whitney Oakley, the district’s deputy superintendent and chief academic officer, is serving in the role of principal for the new school during the design process. She said that Greensboro cultural institutions such as the community theater, symphony, cultural center, and Tanger Center, have all been consulting with the district on the design for the school. She said that design process is ongoing.
She also said Contreras insisted that the design teams for this and the other bond projects find ways to be more innovative.
“I think the vision that Dr. Contreras brought around new school construction pushed me personally, pushed the principals personally,” she said. “We didn’t have a vision for what we hadn’t seen.”
Sheldon Curtis, who lives a couple of streets over, attended Peeler as a child and said his grandmother saw the school being built.
Curtis said he would have preferred if the school district had renovated and possibly added on to the former Peeler building, keeping it for tradition’s sake. He said he also has some questions and concerns about how traffic patterns will work for the new school, and whether it will increase congestion in the neighborhood.
Still, he is glad the district plans to rebuild on the site, because children need schools, he said.
James Glover, who lived in the neighborhood for 71 years and still returns frequently, said he remembers watching children play ball in the field outside the school, in the years before the tornado hit, and the big blue tarp that covered part of the roof that the storm damaged. In recent months, he’s watched the completion of Peeler’s demolition.
Sitting out in a lawn chair in a friend’s yard, Glover watched a video walkthrough of the schematic design as part of an interview for this article.
As he watched, a simulated camera panned around a 3-D rendering of the building, starting on the outside, where giant letters cast shadows spelling out “Art is Joy” on the school’s exterior wall and a huge, fin-like structure shades a portion of the roofs. It toured through classrooms and commons areas, circling the center of the building, where the second floor is cut away and rimmed with a balcony, adding vertical space to that first-floor performance commons.
Glover said he thought it looked like it was going to be a nice, big school.
“I didn’t expect it would be like that,” he said. “I want to see that when they get that.”