Their shirts bore the school motto in Disneyesque lettering: “The best is yet to come.”
But for parents at McDeeds Creek Elementary School, what they saw this week was more than many of them had dared to dream of.
Over the last decade, it’s been through teachers’ fortitude and the logistical virtuosity of Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview elementary school principals that Moore County Schools has accommodated burgeoning student populations around Whispering Pines and Vass.
In a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, the Moore County Board of Education and local officials celebrated the new school that will change that. McDeeds Creek replaces modular classrooms with 42 spacious new ones on Camp Easter Road just inside Southern Pines’ northern limits. It comes with designated art and music rooms as well as project areas, a combined gymnasium and stage, and media center.
“I see teachers and staff, some of you from Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview, who improvised and adjusted to make it work every time we added a new modular building to your campus. You told us that it was hard, but you made it work,” board chair Helena Wallin-Miller said.
“This building and the ones to come are a statement of all of Moore County’s investment in our students and in their future. Additionally, it’s a signal to those who live in and visit Moore County of the value we place on public education and the significance it has for those who live and work in our community.”
Amanda Senff began lobbying the school board for a solution to the crowding at Sandhills Farm Life as soon as her son started kindergarten there. This year, her son will be a fifth grader at McDeeds Creek.
“There’s a lot that’s happened since then with our school board, and I put a bug in their ear every year about how unsafe Farm Life was. So I’m very, very thankful,” she said. “That was the thing I repeated over and over again: these schools aren’t safe. There were too many kids, in the middle of nowhere, with no city support.”
At its peak, Farm Life enrolled more than 700 students in a school designed for 550 and accommodated the excess with eight modular classrooms. With the opening of McDeeds Creek, Farm Life will be down to around 400 students this year. Senff said she would have been glad to stay under improved conditions.
“There were times when I didn’t know where we were going to end up, but I think it’s important to note that I would have been happy with it either way,” she said. “This has made better schools for all of us.”
While teachers worked to arrange desks in their classrooms and trucks were still adding sand to the surface of the playground, students wide-eyed with wonder tried to take in every sparkling inch of the 117,000-square-foot building after Thursday’s ceremony. Checking out the entire media center worth of new material is a top priority for fifth-grader Tyson Davis.
“I knew it was going to be new, with new desks and stuff, so I was really excited,” he said. “I really liked Sandhills Farm Life too, but it’s so cool how they have color-coded walls. That makes it easier for new students.”
Coming from Vass-Lakeview, fifth-grader Elvira Gonzales found herself somewhat overwhelmed.
“I think I’m going to get lost, it’s so big,” she said, mollified at the discovery of the fully equipped art classroom complete with a kiln to fire students’ pottery.
Elvira’s mother, Elvira Macias, attended Vass-Lakeview as a student herself but had no objections to the idea of a move. Her youngest will be in kindergarten.
“As soon as they told us the kids were coming here, I thought a new school and new people to meet sounded okay,” she said. “Vass was smaller and the school was a little bit older, so they didn’t have as many things going on and they didn’t have a budget to buy as much stuff. But here they have all new items. So far we’re impressed with what we see.”
Building a new K-5 elementary school to serve Whispering Pines and Vass has been a priority for the Board of Education since it adopted a master facilities plan in 2015. Construction of McDeeds Creek began in the spring of 2018. But a year before that, the entire project was in limbo.
The schools originally planned to build on another site three miles farther east on Camp Easter Road. Legal issues surrounding that property, along with the high cost to install utilities there, imperiled negotiations and the county vetoed the site in March 2017. By that summer, the schools were pursuing the 36-acre site near Belle Meade and St. John Paul II Catholic School where McDeeds Creek Elementary now sits.
Part of what is known as the Knollwood tract, much of the property was donated to Moore County Schools by the Bell family. The schools paid $200,000 for the remaining five acres and agreed to pay the bulk of the cost to install utilities to the school and development planned nearby. Adjacent to the school, a 130-home development is planned for the immediate future. Long-term residential and commercial development plans stretch to U.S. 1.
In response to the county commissioners’ inhibition at the prospect of borrowing $30 million to build the school without voter approval, the school board declared in the fall of 2017 that the crowding at Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview constituted a crisis. The county then secured a 20-year loan through First Bank to finance the project and the school board awarded a $25.3 million construction contract to the J.M. Thompson Company of Cary.
“To achieve great things often takes bold decisions, and our county commissioners made a bold decision,” said Southern Pines Mayor David McNeill.
Throughout the process of designing McDeeds Creek, Moore County Schools staff have planned for a building that will be in service for 80 years or more.
“This school has been built to last. This isn’t one that 15 years from now, the users are going to wonder why we didn’t do what we should have done,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “Right up front, there’s been resiliency built into this structure.”
Yet another hurdle arose when a nearby landowner challenged the rezoning decision that allowed the school in a lawsuit against the town of Southern Pines. The suit, which contended that traffic and noise associated with the school would adversely affect its neighbors, could have jeopardized state approval of the county’s application to finance the project. But the schools agreed to amend the site plan and Southern Pines reached a settlement in early 2018.
Inspired by the neighborhood and the tributary that runs from Mill Creek, the school’s name and Highland bull mascot pay homage to Scots that settled the area in the 18th century. Despite that initial friction from some neighboring residents, Principal Molly Capps remarked on the welcome she and her staff have received from nearby St. Joseph of the Pines’ residents at Belle Meade as well as Pleasant Hill Baptist Church
“This is truly a blessing to us, because we continue to build this foundation of this school on love, hope, faith and community. With that, all things are truly possible,” said Capps.
Capps became a Moore County Schools principal in 2015 at Aberdeen Primary, one of the oldest schools in the district. Earlier this year, she took the reins of the newest one. Replacements for the current Aberdeen and Southern Pines schools are now under construction and scheduled to open a year from now. Those two schools, and the new Pinehurst Elementary, are being funded through a general obligation bond referendum passed in May 2018 — two months after construction on McDeeds Creek began.
“I’ve tried not to get teary-eyed every time I have to speak about this beautiful place,” she said.
McDeeds Creek was built to serve 800 students. It is set to enroll about 480 this year, but its attendance area is likely to grow when the schools’ redistricting plan takes effect over the next few years. The school board is slated to resume redistricting discussions and approve a plan this fall.
Most of McDeeds Creek’s 22 teachers come from Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview. Some are new to the district. Their photographs are temporary placeholders in the trophy cases in the school’s entry hall.
“Whatever path (students) may choose, the skills and collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication they acquire here will carry them throughout their lives,” said Capps. “Our staff knows that and they take it to heart every single day our students are with us.”
But it was never the teachers that made parents eager to see a change at Farm Life or Vass-Lakeview.
“Farm Life had a history of having good teachers, so I was kind of concerned about that,” said Thomas LeGrande, whose daughter will be in third grade. “But I’ve met her teacher and just came from talking with the art teacher, so that made me feel better.”
“We loved the teachers and staff at Farm Life; they were doing the best they could with what they had,” added Rhonda Honeycutt, a member of the McDeeds Creek PTA and the parent of second- and fourth-graders. Her older daughter spent second grade in a mobile classroom.
“To think that now I don’t have to worry, when there’s severe weather, that my daughter is going to be terrified is very comforting to me. They’ve definitely taken security into consideration. I can’t wait to see the building full of kids.”