MAHONING VALLEY SCHOOLS For Taft pupils, it's a new start

The first day of school at a new elementary is eagerly awaited.
YOUNGSTOWN -- In his charcoal-gray, double-breasted suit and alligator shoes, Tony DeNiro might seem out of place amid the platoons of roughly garbed workers scurrying about the new Taft Elementary School.
But if anyone belongs inside the first school to be completed as part of the city school district's $200 million construction project, it's DeNiro.
As director of school business affairs, DeNiro oversees the massive, largely state-funded undertaking, which will result in the remaking of 15 school buildings over the next several years.
Final work is being done on Taft, which is set to open as scheduled on the first day of school, Sept. 7.
The sprawling structure, facing Avondale Avenue near Gibson Street, holds a special place for DeNiro. He attended the old Taft Elementary, which was swept away to construct the new building amid a frayed, working-class neighborhood.
"It's a fantastic feeling," seeing the first new school completed, said DeNiro, who has sweated many of the details.
"You lie awake at night wondering if this is right, and if that's right," he said.
It's all right
For Principal Michael Schubert, everything about the new Taft seems right.
Schubert eagerly led visitors through the building, which was packed with items waiting to be installed or put in place. Flooring was being laid, electronics were being tested and cherry-stained fixtures were being affixed. Outside the brick structure, a new flagpole gleamed beneath bright skies as landscapers planted trees and shrubs and spread carpets of black mulch.
"What kid's not going to want to come here?" Schubert asked as he showed off the brightly lighted spaces, the gently curving hallways and the school's high-tech features, which include DVD players, VCRs, televisions, intercoms and telephones in every classroom.
It's a school to be proud of, he said.
"You can see the pride in the teachers who just show up" even with the construction not quite completed. They just want to see it. "We can't keep them out," Schubert added.
Teacher's reactions
"This is fantastic," Patty Orenic, a kindergarten teacher, said, as she marveled at an airy classroom smelling of fresh paint. "It's like moving into a new home."
"Pinch me," said Laura Sullivan, who teaches kindergarten through second grade. "It just bring tears to your eyes. The children, it will make them feel special."
Thomas Madej, the architect who designed the building, stood in the 7,000-square-foot space that will serve as a combination of cafeteria, gym and pupil assembly room.
Light from windows near the ceiling soaked into the area, which was still littered with equipment and construction materials.
"It's how we envisioned it," Madej said. The building was designed to chop the large structure into smaller spaces that won't seem so overwhelming to youngsters, he explained.
"We try to keep a neighborhood feeling," Madej added.
Open house planned
The neighborhood and the public at large will be invited to see the school for themselves at an open house that probably will be in mid-September, DeNiro said.
Harding Elementary on the city's North Side also was to have opened Sept. 7, but construction fell behind. It's expected to begin having classes in mid-October.
With other new or remodeled schools set for ribbon cuttings in coming months and years, there will be cause for plenty of rejoicing among pupils, parents, staff and the community.
"We're going to have a continuous celebration," DeNiro said.

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