After touring the new school under construction on June 25, members of the Fort Payne Board of Education were so impressed with how it is taking shape that they couldn’t give it a bland name. After eliminating several possibilities from a list of suggested titles suggested by the teachers who will move their classrooms to the new facility, the board settled on “Little Ridge Intermediate School” as the name.
“Whatever we name it, we’re going to be criticized,” Board president Jimmy Durham told the group during their regular monthly school board meeting held immediately after touring the campus construction site.
“For a day or two,” added Board member Carolyn Martin.
They picked “Little Ridge” after a process of eliminating suggested titles like “Little River” (the canyon being too far away to clearly link), “Big Wills” or “Wills Town” (too much like “Wills Valley”), “Sequoyah” (too easily confused with the nearby mobile home park), “Allen Spring” (not a crowd favorite), “Valley Ridge” (Durham said it reminded him of a cemetery name) and “Fort Payne Intermediate” (too generic for such a “breathtaking” school, according to brand new Board member Sharon Jones).
What Durham really wanted to name the school was “Jim Cunningham Intermediate” in a nod to the city superintendent, who has not only spearheaded the school construction project and was integral to the creation of Wills Valley Elementary as its first principal, but has also “done so much for this school system. Because of your decisions, we went right into [virtual learning] because we already had all of the technology and training in place,” he said.
Cunningham said he was flattered, but that readiness reflected more on the quality of the staff than him personally. He also joked, “Don’t you name things after a person is dead?”
The Board agreed they much preferred him being alive and well.
They considered the inspiration for the design of the school, which was observing the surrounding terrain, a small ridge facing the majestic view of Lookout Mountain.
Board member Neal Baine liked “Mountain Ridge Intermediate”, but a guest at the meeting, teacher Mary Beth Tate, noted that everyone would be using the initials “MRI” and “Little Ridge” simply flowed better when spoken. That additional syllable adds up over the decades.
Cunningham said a very old map of that area referred to it as “Little Ridge,” so that name would have some link to actual history of the land the school sits upon.
Board Vice-President Kathy Prater made the motion to adopt the name, seconded by Martin and approved unanimously.
The board delayed the decision on a name until the last moment as Cunningham said he had to get signage and paperwork created for the new school year.
The construction project is aiming for a Christmastime completion date to serve approximately 750 students in grades third through fifth.
It is called “intermediate” rather than “elementary” because that age group is a transitional one into middle school.
The new school will replace Williams Avenue Elementary, which has been in service since 1954. Construction bids were approved in December 2018, awarding the job to Baggette Construction, Inc., of Decatur, for $19.3 million. Valley Joist, LLC, of Fort Payne was awareded the steel decking and joist package bid for the amount of $216,119.
The city of Fort Payne used $20 million of bond money to put towards the new school and the complete cost of the project, including the base bids and soft costs, totals $22.8 million. The groundbreaking was held in April 2019. Originally, the scheduled completion date was this August, but that was before heavy spring rains so severe that they flooded other parts of the city.
Baine said he had driven past the construction site and seen crews working even on rainy days and some Sundays to avoid falling behind.
Cunningham said the new school will not only replace WAES but also alleviate overcrowding problems at Fort Payne Middle School while also making classroom spaces inside WAES available for programs that have never had space available before.
WAES Principal Jennifer List, who will be principal at Little Ridge Intermediate, and Assistant Principal Jeff Boatright took part in the tour.
The project’s registered architect Robert M. Littleton of Goodwyn Mills & Cawood, Inc., led the tour of the new school, joined by construction managers Jay Grubb, Chris Clark and Sloan Walker from RA-LIN and Eric Dean and Andy Barrett from Baggette Construction.
“It’s a classic E shape building with a central corridor as a spine running the length of the building so an administrator can see everything,” said Littleton. “You can have key personnel at key points and really have visual control over the entire building. On the outside, we have natural colors that really blend into the surrounding landscape, and if you look at it from the road, you really see the natural peaks. It abstractly mimics the mountain range, so it really blends in and flows with the natural environment.”
The school contains 50 classrooms, plus dedicated spaces for project-based and STEM learning, and Cunningham said the school gymnasium will contain Fort Payne’s first full-court basketball court. It will also be the first school in Alabama with Power Over Ethernet lighting, which means that one cable can both power and control the fixtures attached to the network.
Safety is a key feature of the new school.
The center portion of the school is structurally reinforced to withstand even the force of an EF-5 tornado. Assuming there is some advanced warning, everyone in the school would be concentrated into the reinforced interior and sealed off. The entrance will be controlled with a school resource officer being the first person a visitor sees and doors unlocked by office staff, same as currently happens with existing schools. Once a person enters, there is an additional layer of protection before anyone can access the long corridor, classrooms and other areas.
The Times-Journal will provide additional details about the tour and school features in our Wednesday edition.