Sandy Hook Elementary is gearing up for the first day of school tomorrow, nearly four years after a gunman killed 20 students and 6 teachers.
Students will be entering a brand-new school for the first time, located at the same site as the scene of the tragedy.
The original building in Newtown, Conn. was demolished in 2013 after Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage in December 2012.
As Patrick Skahill of member station WNPR reported, returning to the old site was "not an option." As local psychiatrist John Woodall told Skahill, community members "don't want to go back, and vehemently so. For some, it was just too overwhelming to go into that space again without becoming unhinged. ... You can't ask people to bear something that is, for them, unbearable."
The town voted in a referendum to raze the building and construct a new one in its place. As we reported, the decision was overwhelming: 4,504 in favor of tearing it down and 558 against. Since then, students have attended classes at "a temporary location in nearby Monroe," according to The New York Times.
The architects of the new building worked closely with the community to bring the project to life, as member station WSHU's Davis Dunavin reported.
"They were very passionately protective," project manager Julia McFadden told Dunavin. "They really communicated heartfelt feelings about wanting the whole community to come together and recreate the school in a way the town could reconnect to it. Cause they really had their heart ripped out."
In 2014, All Things Considered spoke with Barry Svigals, the managing partner of Svigals and Partners, the firm that designed the building. He emphasized that it was important to the community for the building to feel welcoming – and joyful. Here's more:
"Right from the beginning, they said they wanted it to be welcoming - and that is the nature of this community, by the way, and you feel it; obviously, a nurturing environment; clearly, safety was a part of it - how could it not? And yet it was part of a learning environment that would be delightful for the children, a place where they look forward to coming and every day engaged in a joyful process of learning. That was an important part."
As detailed on the project website, the building was inspired by the "regenerative, restorative and healing elements of nature." That's visible in the building's tree motif, wood paneling and massive windows that let light pour in. The architects say they were exploring themes like "canopies that connect," "tree houses and a new horizon," and "the inner forest."
Given its history, the new school building also has security features like "windows and walls thickened against gunfire," which "follow new state guidelines for public schools," as the Los Angeles Times reported. It added: "On the whole, the design carefully avoids the appearance of an armored campus."
One element absent from the design: a memorial. Jay Brotman of Svigals and Partners told Dunavin that the school community didn't want one. A memorial is planned for elsewhere in the town.
Svigals told All Things Considered that while conceptualizing this project, the design team purposely did not look into other examples of schools or buildings at sensitive sites.
"We didn't look back. We felt our charge was very much to look forward, and to offer the community the hold of building and creating a new school that would serve their children for many years to come," he said.
Ultimately, the opening brings up mixed emotions for the community, as a special education aide from a neighboring school told the Times.
"It's nice that the elementary school kids will come back home to Newtown," Lisabeth Kuroski told the newspaper. "But it's also a sad day, because you can't be here at the opening of the school without thinking of the people we lost."