Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Snip-snip.

Visibly-excited North Ward Elementary School students in Hartshorne shouted out a countdown while a group of them wielded pairs of scissors. They were participating in a ribbon-cutting ceremony held to open the school’s new combination monolithic dome storm shelter, library and media center-computer laboratory.

“It’s sure nice; we’re sure proud of it,” North Ward Elementary School Principal Brian Akins said on Friday. “Most parents would want their kids protected from tornadoes.”

Although Akins said he hopes the school never has to use the facility for protection from a tornado, he’s certainly glad to have it available should the need ever arise.

Students went through their first tornado drill in the new monolithic dome on Wednesday.

“I wanted to see how it looked with all of the students and staff members in there,” said Akins, who noted the facility is built to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards. He said all of the students and staff, including the cooks, can comfortably fit inside the storm shelter in case of an emergency.

With some work still to be done on the lighting inside the dome, Akins is hopeful students can begin utilizing the library and computer labs inside it on a daily basis sometime this week.

Many students, staff and community members have been waiting for the facility to open ever since construction on it began last year. Following the Tuesday ribbon-cutting ceremony, students were ushered through the doors for their first-ever tour of the new facility. Judging by the smiles on their faces, their excitement didn’t diminish while touring the building.

Hartshorne Public Schools administrators joined the 383 North Ward students and faculty for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with some guests from the community and the surrounding area. Among them were former HPS Superintendent Mark Ichord, who’s helping see the school’s storm shelter projects through to completion, along with current HPS Superintendent Jason Lindley.

Superlatives flowed as those inside checked out everything from the building’s decor to the Chromebooks the children will be using in the lab.

Although the building will be used as a storm shelter, the facility has several windows.

“These are hurricane widows,” Ichord said, relating how they are built to contain hurricane-force winds. He also noted the presence of a huge natural gas generator outside, so the building can continue to have power in case of an electrical outage.

One of the best things about the new building, he and other administrators said, is it’s designed to keep the children safe in case of severe weather outbreaks.

Previously, students have had to take shelter in hallways or restrooms during storm drills.

Students were able to use the new building for the first time on Wednesday, but didn’t use if for the rest of the week because of the pending work on the lighting inside. The computer lab in the building contains 30 new Chromebooks, which are similar to laptop computers, for the students to use. In addition, another 25 Chromebooks can be transferred to different classroom on a cart, Akins said.

Among those who were thrilled with the new facilities were Hartshorne Public School Librarian Jennifer Hunt and Assistant Librarian Vanessa Miller.

Akins noted plans include construction of two awnings from the main school building to the new domed facility. That will enable students to pass between the two buildings during rainy weather, for example, without having to walk in the rain.

The new domed elementary school storm shelter-media center is part of a $7.7 million school bond package voters in the Hartshorne School District passed in 2015 calling for construction of two monolithic domes — the one at the North Ward Elementary School and the other at the Hartshorne High School-Middle School Campus.

At North Ward, the building includes a 70-foot dome and covers 14,000 square feet, according to information from school officials.

Construction remains underway on the monolithic storm shelter at the high school and middle school campus, with that facility to serve as a combination community storm shelter and event center. It features a 150-foot dome, which has already been raised, and will cover 28,000 square feet. Work is currently underway on the building’s interior.

Both Ichord and Hartshorne High School Principal Mike Reddick said the goal is to have the dome under construction at the high school ready to use for the 2018 high school graduation ceremony, which will be held in May.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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