With new school unfinished, students start class

Photo by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Otwell Miller Academy fifth-grader Kyleigh Earls petted a locust as it climbed up the arm of her fifth-grade teacher, Valerie Schoppenhorst, at recess on the first day of school in Otwell on Monday. School began with kindergarten through second grades hosted at Otwell Wesleyan Church and third through fifth grades at Otwell United Methodist Church as construction wraps up on the charter school's new building.


OTWELL — Otwell students started school Monday, but instead of attending class in the new Otwell Miller Academy building, they were dispersed among area churches.

Ongoing construction at the site of the new Otwell Miller Academy, 9958 E. County Road 150N, had previously delayed the students’ first day in the new building which was supposed to be Aug. 9, but kids in all of the establishment’s grades kicked off their school year Monday at Otwell United Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Church of Otwell.

The charter school’s kindergarten through second-graders attended their first day of class in the fellowship hall at Wesleyan, while grades three, four and five started in the Sunday school classrooms at United Methodist. Preschoolers started the year in the annex at United Methodist.

Former Friends of Otwell President and current Otwell Miller Academy board member Mike Houtsch said students will ideally start classes in the new building next week, but noted things like painting and trim work will still be in the works when the kids enter for the first time.

“The HVAC, the electrical, the plumbing, all of those things need to be finished up,” Houtsch said. “So that’s what’s being worked on.” He also said last week that the local building inspector has to inspect the school before kids can enter.

He said Monday is a realistic goal for the first day of class in the new building. The school was originally scheduled to open on Aug. 9, but that date was pushed back to Aug. 14 in the face of the construction required to get the building safe and suitable for children. Work on the new structure began in early June.

The building will consist of nine classrooms, several administration offices, and a large room where before- and after-school childcare will be offered. Before construction began, the total cost to build the new charter school was estimated to be $700,000, and that money has been and will continue to be raised from donations and fundraising efforts. The group also has a loan with Old National Bank.

Houtsch worked in construction for 15 years and has taught architectural studies courses at Vincennes University’s main campus for 27 years, so he said he had somewhat of an idea of what the Friends of Otwell Group was getting in to when members decided to erect the building.

“These last couple weeks have been just crazy hectic,” he said. “I kind of expected that — trying to get in and get everything wrapped up. I knew there would be challenges, and there’s still challenges, so we’re just facing them one at a time and trying to do the best we can.”

The Pike County School Corporation closed Otwell Elementary at the end of the 2015-16 school year in the face of a $2.7-million deficit. Ball State University denied the Friends of Otwell a charter in April 2016 before Grace College of Winona granted the group a tentative charter last September. Land for the school property wasn’t secured until April 2017, and subsequent holdups with the bank; Morton Buildings, Inc. of Jasper; and subcontractors have further delayed the completion of the project.

On top of that, Friends of Otwell Legal Chairwoman Elisabeth Luff was told by a contractor that the school was jamming what should be a six-month project into just two months.

As far as how the teachers are adjusting to working in the churches this week, Luff said that being in two different locations is less than ideal from a communications standpoint, but noted the hindrance is being accounted for by keeping a teacher available to go back and forth between the temporary schools.

The locations were approved by the state and Grace College. Police officers and level one fire patrols are on-site for safety reasons. Both locations are outfitted with copiers and printers.

“It’s not ideal, but we’re making do, obviously,” Luff said. “That’s kind of how things work when you’re in a school. You make do.”

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