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Sandy Elementary reopens

Staff, students glad to be back after a fire damaged the facility

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More than 600 Sandy Elementary students are together again.

The students started school Monday under the same roof for the first time since fire left the building severely smoke-damaged last November.

The building looks similar from the outside. But inside, it's a whole new place: newly exposed windows, a relocated front office, air-conditioning and color — from blue, green or red paint in classrooms to new burgundy bricks near the front office.

"I'm excited," said fifth-grader Mackenzee Barker, who last week helped teachers settle into their new digs. "I think (students) are going to go, 'Wow! What happened to my old school.' "

Fire broke out after school Nov. 4, ignited by a welder's torch in a utility room. It is believed to have smouldered undetected for some time before school workers noticed smoke coming through the vents. The few school workers and 40 children from Salt Lake County's Head Start Program in the building were safely evacuated.

The building sustained smoke and water damage, and was deemed indefinitely uninhabitable.

"I think on the parents and the teachers it was a really hard year. I think kids, they're resilient. They looked at it as an adventure," PTA President Kari Lancaster said, adding one of her children raved about his temporary school's playground. "We're very excited to be back, and kids are excited to be with their friends and their siblings."

The students were divided by grade among four schools: Ridgecrest, Peruvian Park and Mountview elementaries and Mount Jordan Middle. They gathered every morning at Sandy, then were transported by 10 buses — five times the school's typical fleet, principal David Gomez said.

Students who missed the bus would miss school or have parents frantically trying to get them there — Lancaster recalls the headache of driving children to three different schools on a few occasions.

Gaye Williamson's fifth-graders, housed in a middle school wood shop area, missed basic elementary amenities, such as a playground and coat racks.

"They put up with a lot, and they were really good sports about it," Williamson said. But students' longing showed in an autobiography writing assignment: "They wrote about how much they missed their school."

The Jordan Board of Education approved $5.5 million worth of repairs and upgrades to the school, including seismic, electrical and even air-conditioning.

Workers were putting finishing touches on Sandy Elementary the week before school started, when the staff was finally allowed inside, Gomez said. There, they faced mounds of boxes — Williamson opened about 80 — of office supplies, teaching materials and the occasional surprise.

A tube, perhaps containing a time capsule, was discovered in a damaged monument outside, Gomez said. Half-century-old photos, and even a can of original paint, surfaced in boxes packed by cleanup crews months ago.

The old items will be displayed at an October open house, where the school might seal a new time capsule, Lancaster said.

"I think we did a wonderful job, despite the fire," Gomez said. "Now, we're kind of riding a positive wave here, and we're just going to keep it going."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com