BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Thanks to approved funding from the state School Building Authority, an Upshur County elementary school will see some major upgrades in year to come.

The county was awarded $2.2 million to renovate Hodgesville Elementary School, located roughly 8 miles north of Buckhannon, and thanks to the state fully funding the project, neither the Board of Education nor the county tax payers have to match any funds.

“It’s been an amazing journey, and as the new school superintendent, certainly a terrific process to go through with the team we have here in Upshur County. We have a lot of people who really helped to make this possible,” Upshur County Superintendent Dr. Sara Stankus​ said.
The biggest improvement to the school, which currently houses kindergarten through fifth grades, will be the addition of a Pre-Kindergarten center on site.

“Those 4-year-old children who have to get on the bus each day and have to be bused into town (Buckhannon) to receive their education, we wanted to keep them in their home school. I think that was really an important piece of the project,” Stankus said.

Having those students at their home school isn’t only about saving the funds on gas or even about student safety, but about allowing them to be part of their home community.

“For that community, especially for the young children, being a part of the school community is really important,” Stankus said.

But the Pre-K Center isn’t the only improvement Hodgesville Elementary School will see from the funding.

“We are going to improve the entryway,” Stankus said. “Right now when you walk into the school, the doors take you right into the hallways of the school so we’re going to do what’s called a safe-school entry where there’s a layer to get into the school, kind of a holding place up front, then you walk into the office and then you’ll be admitted into the hallway.”

Other improvements will include a new HVAC system, a new sprinkler system, an intercom system and a new security system, she said.

While the schools are seeing physical improvements, Stankus said there’s internal problems that schools have needed to address as well.

“Schools are just a reflection of the challenges that our communities are certainly facing,” she said. “In our culture in general, we’re facing a lot of challenges related to the opioid crisis, and we’re stepping up to meet those challenges, supporting grandparents who are raising children and supporting families. We’ve actually even been cautious to stop using the word parents, we’re calling them families because families look differently than they did many years ago.”

Because of that, Stankus said she’s had to provide services she never dreamed of at the start of her education career.

“Right now we have a backpack program in every one of our schools,” she said. “We send a bag of food home with children every weekend, and every school in this county is doing that. We’re glad to support our families in any way that we can.”

Absenteeism, which state Superintendent Dr. Steve Paine has addressed as well, is, too, a common issue in Upshur County.

“There are pockets where we are working to improve attendance, and one of my things is always that a teacher can’t teach an empty chair. We have to have the children in order to teach those children,” Stankus said.

Stankus said the county’s attendance director, Jody Akers, is extremely helpful in coming up with support plans for families who are having trouble getting their children to school.

“There are a lot of issues that children are facing today that maybe weren’t as apparent in years past,” she said. “Things like anxiety, depression, those things that are popping up in our youth, and often the attendance problems may be related to something like that that we have to address.”

To better address those needs, many of the county’s schools now have counselors readily available for students in need.

“We have a really positive relationship with Community Care, and we have those clinics in three of our schools right now,” Stankus said.

But when it comes to the Hodgesville Elementary project, Stankus is looking forward to seeing the project come to fruition now that the funding is secure — an opportunity that she calls “a blessing.”

“We are so, so happy that the School Building Authority decided to grant us our NEEDS project, and we’re looking forward to learning the process as we go through,” she said. “I know we have to start the bidding for the contractors, the architects and that sort of thing, and the School Building Authority will guide us through that process as well.”

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