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New Beginnings: ECC Welcomes Students on First Day - from The Messenger

August 25, 2021

It was a day nearly two years in the making - the new Early Childhood Center welcomed students through its doors for the first day of school on Tuesday morning.

"Starting a new year is just a happy time and a new beginning," said Principal Carmen Banwart.

Banwart was outside, ready to greet the kindergarten students and their parents arriving for breakfast and drop-off, making sure each student felt welcome and valued.

"We're super excited," she said. "It was one of several joyous moments since Aug. 16 when we started with our team and all our staff back."

This is the first time in 31 years that the entire building at 104 S. 17th St. was filled with the laughter and voices of students throughout the school. At that time, it was known as Arey Elementary School.

The plan to renovate the old Arey School and create a "kindergarten campus" started in the fall of 2019 with then-Fort Dodge Community School District Superintendent Jesse Ulrich's idea to move the fifth grade from the middle school to the elementary schools. The plan went through some revisions and reimagining, and eventually the Early Childhood Center was born.

The $6.23 million renovation of the 56-year-old building was designed by Allers Associates Architects, of Fort Dodge. Construction was done by Jensen Builders Ltd., of Fort Dodge.

Housing the district's kindergarten, transitional kindergarten and preschool classes, the ECC will serve between 400 and 450 students each year. The school has six sections, or classes, of preschool, two sections of transitional kindergarten and 12 sections of kindergarten.

"We're blessed to be a part of it," Banwart said.

Tuesday was a day many students, parents, teachers and district staff were anxious to happen.

"I would say that this morning, I think we all woke up with butterflies - the kids, the parents, the teachers, all of us," said ECC Assistant Principal Tonia Burrell. "But I saw a lot of smiles this morning, a few tears, but everyone's excited to start the new year and it was nice to open up the doors."

Drop-off seemed to go pretty smoothly, but Banwart admitted there may have been a few hiccups.

"We are asking for a lot of grace right now because we will work out the glitches for arrival and dismissal," she said.

Unlike the first day of school last year, parents were able to walk in to bring their little Dodgers to breakfast and to their classrooms.

"We knew it was going to be crazy, but we wanted them to be able to come in and take their children to their classrooms," Banwart said.

In preparation for the new school year and building, Banwart collected hundreds of rocks to paint and asked parents and students to write an inspirational message. Students then came down with their classes on Tuesday to put their rocks in the "Kindness Rocks" garden in the playground.

Banwart is proud of the diversity her school has among its students and staff.

"What I'm really looking forward to now is that we have several students who are English language learners here at the ECC and we're so incredibly excited about that," Banwart said. "It's just exciting to have people of lots of different cultures."

She said this year, the ELL students are primarily Spanish-speaking, and the school is partnering with the families and providing literature materials in Spanish.

"We want all people to feel welcome here at the Early Childhood Center," Banwart said.

The ECC has 11 staff members new to the district, the principal said.

"I tell all my staff that we will make a difference, we will change the world here at the Early Childhood Center and our scholars are going to do great things," Banwart said.

Burrell said she's looking forward to seeing how much the students change over the next nine months.

"You just forget how they just grow so much," she said. "They're like little sponges."

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