10 Christian Rains , Olivia Rivas and  greet guests at the open house.jpg

About 75 people attended a ribbon-cutting and open house on Oct. 3 to mark completion of High Ridge Elementary School’s new gymnasium, which doubles as a tornado shelter that can withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour.

“The structure is magnificent,” said Geoff Macy, the Northwest R-1 School District’s chief operating officer. “There is no other one like it, in the district or the county.”

Macy said Northwest school officials are happy the building can provide shelter for people in the community when there’s severe weather.

“If there is a tornado watch issued, we will prepare the shelter. If a tornado warning is issued, people will be welcome to take shelter in the building,” he said. “Generally, we are saying those within about a half-mile from the school.”

The 8,200-square-foot gym can accommodate approximately 950 people and cost $2.8 million.

The district received a $1.2 million federal grant that helped cover the cost, and the rest was covered with district capital improvement funds, Macy said.

The technicalities of working with federal guidelines for the special structure and meeting all the federal inspections made the project a lengthy one, he said.

Terry Russell, who was the district’s executive director of school operations before retiring, attended the ribbon-cutting.

He said work to get the grant for the gym began about six years ago in a coffee shop.

“I was with Brad Erwin of Paragon Architecture. He had done a project like this before,” Russell said.

He said he first applied for federal grants for new gyms to be built at the district’s Brennan Woods and Murphy elementary schools, but they were rejected. Those schools did eventually get new gyms, funded with revenue from the $12.5 million bond issue district voters approved in 2014.

Despite being rejected for the grants for Brennan Woods and Murphy elementary schools, Russell said he applied for another grant for High Ridge Elementary, and it was approved.

Russell said he was very pleased to see the project completed.

“I think it’s beautiful,” he said. “It was great to follow the project from an idea on a piece of paper to the fruition of a nice community shelter.”

Students began using the new gym in August when they returned to school, Macy said.

He said that while it’s great the gym may be used as a tornado shelter, the best part about the building is that it provides much needed space for students’ physical education classes. Before the new gym was built, the school had one space that was used as both a cafeteria and gym.

“It was an educational opportunity to get away from the shared space and absolutely an opportunity to keep students and staff safe in an emergency,” Macy said.

He said the school district is planning to partner with the Jefferson County Parks and Recreation Department to hold an adult volleyball league at the new gym. Macy also said it would work well for Northwest sports feeder programs.

Board of Education president Retta Tuggle said she, too, is thrilled with the new gym. “I’m so excited not only for the students but for the community,” she said. “Some people have nowhere to go in a tornado. And the grant went the extra mile to get this done.”

Former Northwest Superintendent Paul Ziegler attended the ribbon-cutting, as did former and current Board of Education members, administrators, teachers, students and parents.

High Ridge Elementary students who participate in the district’s Leader in Me program helped with the ribbon-cutting and open house, greeting guests, handing out programs, giving tours of the new facility and serving popcorn.