First Moments: Jasper Elementary School

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
School Social Worker Melanie Krueger, left, checks the temperature of Jasper Elementary School kindergartner Emmett Dubon as his father, William, holds him for support outside the school in Jasper on Wednesday. Parents are not allowed inside the school this year due to COVID-19 precautions, so William parted with Emmett at the temperature check.


JASPER — In the morning of a historic day set in the middle of a pandemic, Misty McDonald hugged her daughter, Brandie Staggs, before sending her off into the first moments of her life’s next chapter. It was her last baby’s first day of kindergarten.

“I told her, ‘Have a good day,’” Mom reflected on Wednesday morning. “And that she’ll be O.K.”

Still, Misty was nervous that morning, when after more than three years of discussion, planning and construction, Jasper Elementary School officially opened and united students from the longstanding Fifth Street and Tenth Street elementaries under one roof.

This new building will define the preteen years of generations of Jasper residents. And for those who were inside on Wednesday, those memories — of the social-distancing protocols, the facial-covering requirements, the ample amounts of hand sanitizer — will serve as a reminder of what life was like when its classes first began.

“This is my first year that we can’t actually walk them to the classroom,” Misty explained after Brandie’s temperature was checked and she was ushered into the building without her parents. “So, I think maybe that’s why I’m nervous.”

She and other moms and dads began cruising into the parking lot around 7 a.m. to drop off their kids. Upon arrival, the children had their temperatures taken with forehead scanners — none had fevers — and they were then directed into the new building, where staff guided them to their classrooms’ hallways. Students sat outside the rooms until walking in together to start instruction.

Jasper Elementary School first-grader Carys Voegerl swings during a morning recess at the school on Wednesday. Carys said swinging is her favorite playground activity.

As opposed to a school assembly that would normally kick off the first day of school, Kent Taylor, principal of JES, described this process as a disassembly. While this physically fractured the student body, Taylor explained how other practices have been implemented to better unify the kids and staff in their new home.

“We had a philosophy,” Taylor said. “We didn’t want to have two schools under one roof. We wanted to have one school. And that doesn’t just happen because you geographically move. It’s a process.”

This is being achieved by blending staff members from the former Fifth Street and Tenth Street buildings into each grade level, tapping personnel from both of the old buildings while creating the daily schedule and more. Welcoming students back to school on Wednesday morning, Greater Jasper Superintendent Tracy Lorey spoke of what will be created inside the new, shared space.

“I think it creates a sense of community and continuity,” she said. “It minimizes the transition that can occur for kids and families in the middle of primary and intermediate [schooling]. In terms of the staffing, it really allows the primary and the intermediate to focus as one unit with a shared vision and mission, K-5.”

Total, the approximately 111,000-square-foot school features six kindergarten rooms, four pre-K rooms, 30 general classrooms, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classroom, a gymnasium and a cafeteria with a stage. It also has art and music rooms and a library. The roughly $30 million building holds 850 elementary students.

Jasper Elementary School second grade teacher Eileen Meyer and second-grader Kaiden Roth demonstrate waving as a social-distance greeting for the rest of the class on Wednesday. Other social-distance greetings recommended by Meyer include elbow bumping, foot bumping, spirit fingers, curtseying, saluting, blowing a kiss, bowing and air hugging.

“I didn’t realize how just a brand new, fresh building with … the fresh paint and brand new desks, and just all those little details, really do help the culture, help the environment,” Trisha Pfau, a fifth-grade teacher who moved into JES from Tenth Street, said while touring the structure on Wednesday morning. “I guess you don’t really realize it until you’re in it.”

According to Herald archives, the possibility of constructing the combined elementary school was first mentioned at the school board’s February 2017 meeting in response to a study that showed nearly $20 million in necessary repairs at Fifth Street School and Tenth Street Elementary. (That report did not include the cost of lessening the potential flooding problems at both schools, which could have cost additional millions).

“We did everything we could to solve those problems, and they could not be solved,” Board President Bernie Vogler said at the school’s groundbreaking ceremony in May 2018. “There was no guarantee we could solve them. So, we ended up doing this, and I think from what I’ve heard, we’ve never had one remonstrator, and all I’ve ever heard personally is that we did the right thing.”

For months leading up to the opening of the new school, the four Dubois County school corporations worked together to form a school reopening framework in response to COVID-19 that included safety measures, such as assigned seats on buses and in cafeterias and increased sanitation practices.

Jasper Elementary School third grade teacher Lori Kunkel, left, points to the music room from the junction common area of the school while giving her class a building tour on Wednesday.

Flash forward to Wednesday morning. While students did a good job of listening to teachers and keeping their masks on their faces, the first moments weren’t perfect. A stretch of cars dropping off their kids backed up onto Portersville Road well past JES’ 8 a.m. start time. Taylor spoke later that morning of how the process would be modified in the future.

“It was a long line,” Taylor said Wednesday. “But we’re making an adjustment for tomorrow. So, we’re going to try to make it go faster. I can’t make it be shorter, but I can make it go faster.”

Students began filing into their new classrooms around 8:30 a.m. Eileen Meyer, a second grade teacher at JES who led fifth-grade classes for 29 years, welcomed her students by telling her kids how honored she was to have them in her room.

Before beginning classroom activities, or going to recess, or eating lunch, or going to physical education class in the gym, Meyer shared a message with her students. On their desks, next to bags of supplies and leadership guides, she left them poem-style notes aimed at putting them at ease.

“I wanted you to have something on your desk to know that we don’t have to be afraid,” she told the class. “So, erase your fear, we’re going to have an amazing year.”

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