As they first approached the brand-new G. Weaver Hipps Elementary School this fall, some residents of Lehigh Acres, Fla., may have remembered going back-to-school shopping in that very location just a few years earlier. Newcomers to the area, however, would not have known that the building that houses the new school used to be a Kmart.
In 2003, administrators in Lee County Public Schools had to decide what to do about the district’s rapidly growing population. From July 2000 to July 2003, the county had added almost 50,000 residents.
Although they were using about a thousand portable units across the district and could have added more, they chose instead to purchase an abandoned Kmart and transform it into a “staging school,” a temporary facility that would house students for one to two years while a new building was constructed for them.
Reggie Snell, the district’s director of construction services, says it was an easy decision. “All of the infrastructure was already there—water, sewer, sprinkler systems. It was a lot cheaper to do that than to build massive ‘portable farms.’” The district purchased the building and land for $4 million, a decision welcomed by area residents. “They were happy to see an empty building become a school,” says Snell.
Snell says that the building was wide open when renovations began, so workers were able to get right to work. They built lots of walls, installed a bathroom for every classroom, replaced the rooftop air conditioning units, and created 10-foot-high drop ceilings. Electrical lines and ductwork were installed easily in the eight to nine feet of space above the ceilings.
Outside, workers converted sections of the building’s large parking lot to fields and play spaces. “The people in the water management district liked that,” says Snell.
After serving as a staging school for a high school and two elementary schools, the building is now the permanent home of G. Weaver Hipps Elementary, the fifth elementary school in Lehigh Acres and the 47th in the district.
Principal Scott LeMaster says that additional work was done to prepare for housing the new school, such as adding small walls and safety doors at the entrance to the three hallways that branch out from the reception area, a much-needed security enhancement.
“In 16 years of working in education, this is by far the nicest facility I’ve been in, and I’ve been in some pretty nice facilities,” says LeMaster.