Several Johnstown residents and leaders were on hand April 23 to help break ground on a new elementary school.

Several Johnstown residents and leaders were on hand April 23 to help break ground on a new elementary school.

The roughly $20 million facility is being built in the Leafy Dell subdivision northwest of downtown and will represent the first new academic building in the Johnstown-Monroe Local School District in more than 50 years.

The school will be 85,675 square feet with 29 classrooms, accommodating 744 students.

Superintendent Dale Dickson said the project is possible because of many people working together -- from the passage of the May 2014 levy to ideas shared by everyone in the community.

Voters approved an 8-mill tax issue, with 7.5 mills for bonds to renovate and improve school facilities and 0.5 mill for permanent improvements, in May 2014.

The new school, at 200 Leafy Dell Drive, will be the first new academic building in the district since the high school was built in 1965, according to Debbie Seibel, the district's director of administrative services. She said the high school's performing-arts center was the latest addition in 1986. Before that was the high school library in 1979.

School board president Ruth Ann Booher said the district has waited a long time for this occasion.

"It has been challenging with a lot of speed bumps," she said. "We're a determined community."

Booher said the last significant building program was the performing-arts center, as a result of a levy passed in 1984.

She said the district has seen five levies fail since then.

"What a proud day we have," she said.

Booher likened the community's tenacity to the message in the children's book, "The Little Engine That Could."

The story is about a train taking toys to children on the other side of a mountain.

"The train wouldn't start, and children asked for help," Booher said. "After many moments of rejection, there was a blue engine called a switch engine. He said he had never been to the other side of the mountain but would give it a try."

She said Johnstown is like the Little Engine, saying, "I think I can, I think I can."

"And we did it," Booher said.

Guest speaker Alice Main said she has been a Johnnie since she walked through the doors of Oregon Elementary School as an excited first-grader in 1954.

"I certainly had no idea then that I would spend 47 years in this district either as a student, a teacher or a building principal," Main said. "While I am a little too young to have had Willis C. Adams as a teacher, he was the nearest neighbor to our farm on Castle Road when I was a child."

Main said Illa Searfoss (the namesake of the elementary school) was her fifth-grade teacher for half days in the morning and was her principal the other half of the day.

Built in 1951, Oregon Elementary School and what's now Adams Middle School housed all the district's students, Main said.

"By the time I was in sixth grade, my father, who had been a teacher at Oregon when I was a student, was moved to the basement of the Methodist church to teach fifth grade because our schools were bursting at the seams," she said.

As a result, Douglas Street School -- later named Illa Searfoss -- was built in 1961.

"Johnstown continued to grow, and my graduating class of 76 (students) in 1966 -- and this year's 50th alumni class -- would be the first seniors to attend the academic portion of the present high school," she said.

Main said brick and mortar do not make up the character of a school district, though.

"It's the people within the district and community that make it work," she said.

Main said the children who walk through the doors of the new school will have a story yet to be written.

Every child, parent and staff member has a part in their journey, she said.

"How exciting it is to be officially breaking ground today for the first new school building in our district in 50 years," she said.

Searfoss kindergarten teacher Katie Shaffer said she's excited about the new school.

"We moved here to be part of this community," she said. "My kids will be in this school. I'm so happy our community came together."

Her 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, said she's looking forward to a playground at the new school.

Oregon principal Marcie Wilson said she's happy to see a new school being built after working 23 years in the district.

"It's an exciting day for the community, staff and students," she said.

First-grade teacher Danielle Housler appeared to fight back tears when she was asked about the significance of the new school.

"It affects my whole life -- my career and where my daughter will go to school," she said.

"We have great schools, and now we will have a great building to be in."