Whitehall News

Journey to C. Ray Williams center's new home 'worth it' for leaders

Whitehall schools' early childhood center settling into former Kae Avenue Elementary building

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DEBORAH M. DUNLAP/THISWEEKNEWS
C. Ray Williams Early Childhood Center Director Shirley Drake (left) and longtime assistant Pam Swanson show off their new home in the former Kae Avenue Elementary School building.
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When the Whitehall City School District embarked on a construction project to replace all five of its school buildings more than five years ago, the fate of the C. Ray Williams Early Childhood Center was uncertain.

The old building would not be replaced, but the possibility remained that the program could move into the old Kae Avenue Elementary School building if funds allowed.

As design plans were presented and discussed at regular monthly board meetings, center Director Shirley Drake and Pam Swanson, Drake's longtime assistant, watched as each school's color scheme and layout unfolded.

In 2011, the center marked its 20th anniversary, announcing that the old Kae Avenue Elementary School would become its new home, eventually to be renamed the C. Ray Educational Building.

By July 2013, the district was to have completed all five if its new school buildings, which meant each of the old structures would meet with the wrecking ball -- except for Kae Avenue.

"The future for Whitehall is very bright," said then-Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy. "We recognize how important it is for our children to have a preschool experience."

But it wasn't until about a year ago that the decision became official. As the center's future hung in the balance, Drake and Swanson attended nearly every board meeting, watching and waiting.

"It was a journey," Drake told district administrators and school board members this week as they hosted the board's regular monthly meeting at the center's new home. "But it was all well worth it."

Even as board members pushed through their monthly agenda last Thursday, Feb. 13, contractors were hard at work in C. Ray's classrooms, installing new shelving. Work continues even though school is in session.

"We've got new cubbies, sinks and countertops," Drake said.

New paint brightens each classroom, now dotted with toys and other props ready for small hands.

Renovations also are in the works for the building's restrooms.

In August, after the building was abated and asbestos removed, Swanson said the scene was overwhelming. The destruction was unexpected because so much insulation was present.

But both Drake and Swanson credit the district's maintenance staff and Ruscilli Construction for working swiftly to get everything in order for the start of the school year, which still had to be delayed slightly.

While the district's other buildings waited for demolition, Drake and Swanson scoured the rooms of the former Kae Avenue building, looking for cast-off furniture to outfit their new digs.

For the first time, they had large office spaces, a nursing station, storage closets and a conference room. A large open area inside the entrance to the school building serves as a common area where parents are encouraged to linger and connect. That space, too, needed furniture.

Now, the center houses 11 classrooms rather than the former five, and is home to 260 children -- 100 more than in years past.

Even though they are pleased with their new home, the center's leaders took children to watch the demolition of their old building as a means of closure.

"It was so hard," said Drake. "We had so many memories there."

Still settling into their new home, Drake and Swanson plan to make memories there, too.

Former Whitehall Superintendent Jack Conrath, who was on board when C. Ray first opened its doors, addressed a crowd of about 50 four years ago, saying, "This center certainly is a tribute and a monument to many things. ... The Whitehall community is a pioneering community ... a community that is not afraid to step up and makes things happen."

Drake and Swanson said those words still ring true.

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