Sylvester B. Jones Elementary School has undergone extensive renovations to prepare for a future when it could be once again at full capacity.
To prepare for that possibility, upgrades on both the interior and exterior of the building were finished last summer after around seven months of work, said Damon Gibbs, Hall schools’ executive director of facilities.
The school was closed in 2010, due to budget constraints and because the building was in need of repairs, according to Hall Superintendent Will Schofield.
“It was a ‘two birds, one stone’ thing,” he explained.
Closing the school not only saved the system approximately $1 million per year, he said, but the needed renovations were able to be done with the students out of the building.
Both Schofield and Gibbs were emphatic that it was always intended that the school would be used again at some point.
“We were not shutting this school down to tear it down,” Gibbs said. “It will be something, some form of a campus at some point.”
Built in 1949, the school had around 350 students when it closed.
The Hall County Board of Education then voted for it to be used as an Early Language Development Center following its closure. Currently, both Schofield and Gibbs said there are a couple of preschool special education classes in the school. Also, Ninth District Opportunity has an office in the building, and some youth teams use the gym from time to time.
The programs currently using the building are kept in the newly built front part of the school, with the original section and classrooms remaining closed off.
The renovations cost around $3 million, Gibbs said, with the money coming from special purpose local option sales tax revenue and state entitlement funds.
“(With state entitlement funds) you earn money throughout a school’s life for roofing, for HVAC, for renovations in the interior,” Gibbs said. “So (with Jones closing) we took that opportunity to use some of the funds available.”
Renovations include an expanded cafeteria and media center, completely redoing many of the classrooms, and adding extra electrical work to keep the school up to date with recent technological advances.
“We have the infrastructure for new technology in place,” Gibbs said, “but it doesn’t make sense to put something in now that will sit there for a few years, and then when the building is going to be used, all of the technology is out of date.
“Everything’s been updated,” he added. “Everything from the floor tile to the ceiling to the HVAC systems.”
Gibbs and Stan Souther, maintenance foreman, said that the renovations were also a chance to remove asbestos from the school.
“It was not around the children,” Gibbs said. “It was up in the roof area, but without anyone here, it gave us the opportunity to remove it.”
Also, a sprinkler system, which did not exist previously, was installed.
Both Gibbs and Souther have personal memories of the school. While neither attended, they both played basketball games in the gym. Gibbs attended summer camp at the school.
With their own personal histories in mind, they said, it was important to them to keep the original integrity of the school intact during the updates.
The original entryway remains inside the school, with much of those materials still in place.
“We intentionally did not replace the older rock, the brick, the wood columns that you see out here,” Gibbs said. “We left as much of the original part of the building as we could leave, to maintain the history of this school.
“We have a lot of parents who went here, even grandparents who went to school here,” he added.
The older classrooms maintain the same woodwork, though some is painted over to improve the appearance. The original dark wood doors with glass insets also remain, lining one of the main hallways. The original tile in the hallways, which reaches halfway up the walls, doesn’t exactly match the new floor work, but does provide another interesting architectural element.
The gymnasium, in particular, maintains much of its original work.
“(The gym is) very historical to Hall County,” Gibbs said. “We wanted to make it so when you walked in it, that you knew you were still at Jones. So, that was really important to us.”
The old, wooden bleachers remain. While the glass windows were replaced, the grates that cover them remain. The original heavy doors leading into the gym were replaced, due to being warped and aged over time.
Many changes also lend themselves to school safety. For example, Gibbs said that there had been two classrooms added to the school at some point, but that the rooms were separated from the building, leading to kids having to walk outside and enter the main building to reach the other parts of the school.
Now, the entire school is encapsulated, so no students would have to go outside to access other parts of the building if it reopens as a school.
Schofield said that he could see the building being occupied at some point over the next two to four years, due to recent growth of the school system.
He also mentioned that the school is in an ideal spot, being centrally located and easily accessed from Interstate 985.
Schofield said that, while it was a difficult choice to make, closing the school in 2010 was “a decision that made a lot of sense.”
Years ago, Schofield said, when the system was adding 1,000 students a year, schools were being built as fast as possible. But then the economy dipped, and no new students were being added.
Currently, around 500 students are being added to the system per year, leading the school system to once again begin to look ahead to future growth.
But Schofield was quick to say that nothing is certain, including the future of Jones Elementary.
“One of the things that we’ve become comfortable with is the concept of ambiguity,” he said. “I have no idea what will end up being there, but we now have a space that’s state of the art.”