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story.lead_photo.caption Brothers Owen, left, and Thor Millard crawl on a new couch in the classroom of fourth-grade math teacher Jennifer Simpson during an open house for the new Bobby G. Lester Elementary School in Jacksonville on Wednesday. - Photo by Mark Buffalo

When the new Bobby G. Lester Elementary School opens for the 2018-19 school year Monday, it will be the first new traditional public school built in Jacksonville in 37 years. This is the first of many new buildings to come for the Jacksonville North Pulaski School District.

Lester Elementary, which is named in honor of former Jacksonville High School principal and superintendent Bobby G. Lester, is replacing Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools. A new

$65 million Jacksonville High School on Main Street is set to open in August 2019.

“We are very excited to move into a new school,” said Principal Janice Walker, who was the principal at Arnold Drive, which was on the Little Rock Air Force Base. “It’s been in the works since Jacksonville was trying to leave the Pulaski County Special School District and become its own district.”

The Jacksonville North Pulaski School District is entering its third year as a standalone school district.

An opening ceremony for the school took place Wednesday in a crowded cafeteria with several speakers, including Superintendent Bryan Duffie, school board president Ronald McDaniel and Lester. A ribbon-cutting was held outside in front of the new facility.

Lester worked his way up through Pulaski County as principal at Jacksonville Junior High School North, then Jacksonville High School. He was an assistant superintendent before becoming superintendent and serving for 15 years before retiring in 1999.

When the Jacksonville North Pulaski School District was formed, Lester served as interim superintendent during the planning stages of the district.

A groundbreaking for the new school was held June 14, 2017.

“They surprised me at the groundbreaking when I was there in Levi’s and a T-shirt,” Lester said, when he was told during the groundbreaking that the school would be named in his honor. “Today, I surprised them and dressed up a little bit.

“This is a beautiful building. I can’t tell you how humbled I am for having a school named for me. My heart just overflows with joy to be in this building. The architects and the contractors have done such a great job. I appreciate them very much.”

Walker said one of the big keys to a successful year was combining the two staffs from Arnold Drive and Tolleson.

“We’ve done a lot of team-building activities,” she said. “That’s very important because you want a strong team. It sets the foundation for the student learning. We’ve done that.”

Teachers were not able to get into the building until Aug. 2 to work in their rooms. They started professional development last Monday.

“The teachers were very anxious to get in,” Walker said. “It’s a new building, and they wanted to see their classrooms and their various colors. Different rooms are different colors.”

At the same time, Walker said, some rooms do not have color patterns.

“The pattern is repeated throughout the school, basically using the colors of yellow, orange, green, blue and red,” Walker said. “In some of the rooms, we don’t have color because, based upon our student population, some students thrive better without color on the walls, so we have to take that into consideration.”

Instead of normal student desks, students will be able to take advantage of what Walker calls flex seating in the classroom.

“Flex seating is a way that students have the opportunity to kind of move away from the traditional seating,” she said. “We have a different type of student learning today. With that, we have to think about alternatives. Our students like to move. A lot of the flex seating allows the students to move around, wiggle in their seats, rock back and forth. It goes away from the traditional seating where you have to be in a chair your entire school day.”

One of the types of seats is the Oodle Stool, which is stackable seating that is usually three levels high. Any of the stacks can be used as a seat, Walker said.

“We also have little seats on the floor that the students can rock in,” she said. “It’s a slight motion. It gives them the sense of movement without actually being up out of their seats.”

Walker said she formed a furniture committee before the end of last school year, consisting of teachers from both Arnold Drive and Tolleson.

“We wanted to look at what we wanted with the aesthetics of the building” and furniture for the students and faculty, Walker said.

Lester Elementary has a capacity for 650 students. Walker said around 500 are enrolled for the new school year.

The school also features new technology for students, teachers and staff.

“We have the ability to have cameras throughout the school, where I can pull up every teacher’s classroom while sitting at my desk area,” Walker said. “It has the visual, as well as the audio. I could do a teacher evaluation from here in my office. With the technology in the classroom, the teacher has a SMART Board (an interactive whiteboard) with a few upgrades. They can be more creative with their lessons using the SMART Board.”

Students also have access to computer labs and Chromebooks.

“We’re not quite 1-to-1, but the students have access to a computer lab,” Walker said. “In the classroom, they will have at least five to six Chromebooks, but we also have Chromebook carts that teachers can check out.”

The gymnasium also serves as a safe room in the event of a tornado, but the safe room could be used for more, Walker said.

“Even if there is an active shooter, we could get our students into the safe room,” she said. “It just depends upon what is going on. But it could be an area that we could take them to if time was allowed. But it would be for tornadoes, basically.”

With Arnold Drive and Tolleson combining, it will be a change for the families who live on the Little Rock Air Force Base.

“I always said the Tolleson students got to see the building go from the ground up,” Walker said, referring to Lester being built next to Tolleson. “Arnold Drive was located on the air base. This will be a transition for the Air Force base parents because they had been able to walk over for lunch or things like that. So now, it will be a little different, since the school is no longer located on base.”

According to a previous report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a new middle school and an elementary school will be built in the early 2020s on the site of the current high school on Linda Lane. The elementary school will replace Warren Dupree and Pinewood elementaries. Ultimately, Murrell Taylor and Bayou Meto elementaries will also be replaced.

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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