Principal Blaine Broderick cuts the ribbon to the newly constructed "safe gym" at Twain Elementary School. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

At a December Springfield Public Schools board meeting, Denise Fredrick marveled at the raucous response from Field Elementary School students during a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school’s new storm shelter-gymnasium.

Nearly 400 students joined teachers and district leaders at the Dec. 6 celebration, which concluded with concerts performed by students on the school’s new stage in the facility financed by a voter-supported 2019 bond.

“And it was just a storm shelter,” said Fredrick, the SPS board president. “Not a brand new school. Just their storm shelter.”

From the outside, the district’s growing roster of storm shelters look pretty similar — big, sturdy, unremarkable. That can be said for the insides, as well. 

“They are pretty cut and dry,” Travis Shaw, the district’s executive director of operations, said during the board meeting. “They’re gymnasiums with stages. We’ve seen them.” 

But for faculty and students at the schools that have added them in recent years, the spaces are transformative, said Field Elementary music teacher Lauar Helton. That is one of the reasons why six more storm shelter-gynasiums are on the list of projects voters will review when they decide on a $220 million bond measure in April. 

The shelters are each estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $5 million to design and build. 

The shelters at Field Elementary and Twain Elementary, which also had a ribbon-cutting this month, were built thanks to leftover millions from under-budgeted projects prioritized with the $168 million bond approved in 2019. While Field’s celebration was held this month, Helton moved into her new classroom in the new building in October. 

“It has totally changed the game for us, I think,” said Helton. “I think I’m able to dream bigger as a teacher, because there are so many more opportunities that did not exist before.”

Denise Fredrick, president of the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education, works with SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan to cut souvenir pieces of the ribbon at Twain Elementary School’s safe gym opening. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

More than meets the eye

During the Dec. 13 meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve the ballot language for the April 4 bond vote, and board members pointed to the reactions they saw from students and staff at the Field event as one of many reasons to put the $220 million decision before voters. 

Fredrick noted that Field’s principal, Janell Bagwell, read a top 10 list of reasons during the ribbon-cutting ceremony about why a storm shelter is a big deal. The top reason: students won’t have to cram into bathrooms to ride out storm drills now that they, and the school’s surrounding residents, have a 10,000-square foot space designed to protect people during severe weather. 

And board member Danielle Kincaid mentioned she happened to be touring Field on the day Helton moved into a space “where she actually had room to do her classwork.” Kincaid said she could sense Helton’s excitement. 

During a recent interview with the Springfield Daily Citizen, Helton explained why the space means so much for her and for Field students. 

Before she moved into her new classroom space inside the multipurpose shelter, Helton taught music in a computer lab that had been converted into a music room. 

“Very small room,” she said. “We were shoulder to shoulder. Last year, I know, I had a fifth-grade class that had 27 students and it’s fifth graders, so they’re big. So we were literally crammed.” 

Helton teaches all the students at Field, and said kids from every age group were affected from trying to learn music in a space that wasn’t designed for it. 

“It can be very difficult for some students, especially who may have special needs or for whatever reason, they are overstimulated by a lot of colors, a lot of sounds,” she said. “When being in such a small space, and having so many bodies, it’s very overstimulating for some of our students. So I saw that a lot. We used a lot of noise-canceling headphones because it was so loud and overwhelming.”

To dance or play a game, Helton said she almost always took classes outside because it wasn’t feasible in the repurposed computer lab. 

“It just put a lot of limitations on us as a class, in our learning in general,” she said. “There were just a lot of things that were not feasible in the old room.”

Helton’s new classroom is located adjacent to the gym floor, separated by a dividing wall that can be moved to create a stage. And, Helton said, it is vast. 

“My room is at least two times, maybe three, the size of my previous room,” she said. “The ceilings are like 17 feet high. So acoustics are so different. We’ve got acoustic panels all over the room to help absorb some of that sound. And one of the really cool features about the room is that it transforms, instantly — well, almost instantly — into a stage. All we have to do is pull the curtain around, and open up that wall that divides and we are already on stage for our performances.”

In the two months that Helton’s students have been in the new space, she said they’ve been able to do activities they could have never done in the old classroom. Her second-graders recently learned a scarf dance set to “Trepak,” a musical piece from “The Nutcracker.” And her third-graders recently played a game that’s she said is akin to musical chairs, but required students to ID which of the four orchestral families an instrument belongs to. 

In the process, Helton said, she is noticing behavior changes among students who were struggling in the cramped quarters of the old classroom.  

“I don’t see the overstimulation that I used to, because there’s so much more space for our sound to travel,” Helton said. “We have these high ceilings. We have acoustic panels that absorb that sound. So I see an improvement in that for our students who were struggling. I also see improved behavior, because we’re able to engage the students in so many different ways now. We spend part of our time on the carpet in the center of the floor doing things, and then we have chairs, and we go there, and then I have risers set up further back, and we go back there. So we’re able to move around so many different ways. And I’m seeing a difference in engagement, because they’re able to actively move throughout the space, and explore so many more things that they weren’t able to explore before.”

Six storm shelter-gymnasiums part of 2023 bond ballot language

If voters approve the SPS proposal to extend the district’s current 73-cent tax levy to fund a $220 million bond measure, six shelters will be built. They include:

  • Cowden Elementary ($5,105,000 estimated cost)
  • Holland Elementary ($5,105,000)
  • Mann Elementary ($4,950,000)
  • Pittman Elementary ($5,105,000)
  • Watkins Elementary ($5,105,000)
  • Wilder Elementary ($4,950,000)
Students rejoice to get a new space for gym activities. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

New architects could put slightly different spin on some storm shelters

While Shaw said the storm shelters are fairly “cut and dry” builds, he said the district wanted to see what a new set of eyes could offer if voters approve the $220 million ballot measure. Minutes after the school board voted to approve the bond language, district officials presented the board with plans to commission architects to draft schematics and designs for several projects linked to the bond measure. 

As part of those plans, which the board also unanimously approved, Buxton Kubik Dodd Design Collective will be paid $198,450 to develop schematics and designs for the multi-use shelters at Pittman and Watkins elementary schools. 

The Springfield-based architecture firm is behind the major renovation underway at Hillcrest High School, and also led renovations at Kickapoo High School. Shaw said his office looked forward to seeing what a different set of eyes could bring to the design and construction of the shelters. More important than any design flourishes, he said, is functionality. The firm, like all architects that have built any of the district’s 12 existing safe shelter spaces, have structural engineers on staff with experience building to FEMA guidance for storm shelter construction

The district’s shelters are built to withstand a category F5 tornado and are open to neighbors who can reach the school building in a “timely manner” during a tornado or high wind storm. School staff readies storm shelters when tornado watches are issued, and safe room doors open to neighbors once a tornado warning is issued. 

Along with approving the nearly $200,000 commitment to developing designs for two shelters, the board approved design development for two of the most costly projects linked to the upcoming bond vote, a new Pipkin Middle School and a new Reed Middle School. Paragon Architecture will receive $319,500 to create schematics and design for Pipkin, and Sapp Design Associates will be paid $378,750 to do the same for Reed. 

While board member and real estate developer Kelly Byrne said at the Dec. 13 meeting he was initially hesitant to commit district funds to bond-related projects before voters have their say, he pointed out that the schematics would be an asset if the bond measure is rejected. They could still be used if it has to be put to another vote down the road. 

Mark Twain Elementary School Principal Blaine Broderick cuts the ribbon to the newly constructed Tornado Shelter. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Twain Elementary principal shares students’ favorite parts of new ‘safe gym’

At the Dec. 15 ribbon-cutting for Twain Elementary School’s shelter, Fredrick likened the building to an early Christmas present during her remarks, which drew some student applause. Twain’s principal, Blaine Broderick, centered his remarks around answers to questions he said he asked students in the lead-up to the ceremony. 

“It’s awesome” and “It’s so huge” were responses he got when he asked kids their favorite part of having a new safe gym, as he called it. 

“One student said: ‘Well, I really like that we can have PE without bothering the lunch ladies. One time, I threw a ball and it ended up in there while they were cooking and they did not like that very much,’” Broderick continued. “But there are two comments that stood out to me. One fifth-grader said: ‘Well, we used to have to have PE in our classrooms, sometimes, which we didn’t like because the desks were in the way. Sometimes we had to have PE in the cafeteria while lunch was just finishing up, and some students were still eating. Oh, and there was sometimes food still on the floor.’ 

“Another, by a fourth-grade girl, stated: ‘I really liked it when we do storm drills we get to go to the new gym instead of the bathrooms. For some reason, I am always in the class that has to use the boys’ room, and it is disgusting.’”

Many students in attendance let out a collective “ewwwww!” as Broderick brought up the memory. 

Shelters offer opportunities for community building, Field teacher says

Broderick went on to say another student’s favorite event that happened in the safe gym was a Veterans’ Day assembly when visitors performed a concert on the school’s new stage. 

Being able to host and perform shows on school grounds is a game-changer at Field, said Helton, who is in her second year with the district after getting a music education degree at Evangel University.

Before the stage opened up, students performed at a nearby church. Her students recently held their first performance at the school, and she said being able to host shows in-house makes it more special and authentic for everyone involved.

“The possibilities for performances, in our performing space, are endless,” she said. “And that it all happens in-house and we’re not having to go anywhere else — it just makes it so much more authentic and special, I think.”

Asked what she wanted people to know about what is going on inside new, nondescript buildings on a growing number of school grounds, Helton said: “I want them to know that their students are getting new, exciting opportunities to actively engage in music, and other arts as well and moving their bodies in physical education. And it’s providing us a space as a school that we can do community events, and we can actually have real assemblies where we could fit, and enjoy things together. I think it is really bringing us together as a community having a space like this.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson