FORT SILL, Okla. (April 29, 2013) -- Department of the Army, Oklahoma state and local officials broke ground for a new $45 million elementary school, April 26, ensuring national academic excellence for military children at Fort Sill.

Hundreds of spectators witnessed Under Secretary of the Army Joseph W. Westphal, Ph.D., Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general, along with students and teachers from the Geronimo Road & Sheridan Road Elementary Schools, initiated the official start of construction on the new Freedom Elementary School.

"We will finally modernize their elementary education. We will bring better facilities and a healthier environment to learn in," Westphal said during his keynote address at the ceremony.

"There is no way we could name this school anything but Freedom Elementary. This community [Lawton-Fort Sill] represents the Soldiers who help us maintain that freedom," said Barry Beauchamp, superintendent of Lawton Public Schools.

AGING MILITARY SCHOOLS

Westphal said the mission to rebuild and refurbish schools on stateside military installations started more than two years ago with a phone call from former Washington State Congressman Norm Dicks.

Dicks told him about the aging schools on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and the lack of local funds to repair the them. That conversation prompted Westphal to direct a nationwide study of public schools on U.S. Army bases, which confirmed there were many schools in need of repair or replacement on various installations throughout the Army.

"We got an assessment that this was a much bigger problem than we thought," Westphal said.

The results of the nationwide assessment, which rated 19 schools at seven separate military installations in poor condition, justified to the Department of Defense, U.S. Congress and the White House a $250 million addition to the fiscal year 2011 defense appropriations bill.

These findings eventually brought Westphal and Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe to Fort Sill to review the status of on-post schools at Fort Sill. The pair found that the Geronimo Road & Sheridan Road Elementary Schools were outdated and needed to be replaced. They initiated action to consolidate the schools into one state-of-the-art facility that will provide military children on Fort Sill the educational resources they deserve.

"One of the challenges of replacing the schools was that DOD didn't have the budgetary authority to rebuild public schools," Westphal said. "The school districts had to come up with resources to leverage the funding that DOD was providing, and Congress passed laws that enabled federal and local money to be used."

"This is a community effort, an Army effort, a Department of Defense effort, and it's a national effort," Westphal said.

During his remarks, Westphal underscored the resiliency of military children and the importance of providing them with the academic facilities and resources they need to achieve national academic excellence. He also thanked the teachers for their vital role in educating military children.

"It takes a great deal of resilience to deal with the many transitions of military life. I commend you students for your ability to adjust and continue learning, and I applaud your teachers for their commitment to providing a quality education to military children," Westphal said as he praised the students and teachers.

FREEDOM ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Freedom Elementary will replace the two public elementary schools on Fort Sill: Geronimo Road, which opened in 1952; and Sheridan Road, built in 1962.

"Geronimo's construction was intended to last about the 30-year range. As you can tell the building is fatigued," Beauchamp said, gesturing toward the school. "The new 209,800 square-foot school and its playgrounds, bus loading areas and four parking lots will occupy about 36.5 acres near the existing Geronimo Road Elementary."

Freedom Elementary will consist of four main buildings with one dedicated for pre-kindergartners, according to Beauchamp. The new school will feature multiple computer labs, and specialized rooms, such as for science, music, a media center and a multipurpose room. There will be administrative offices and counseling rooms in each wing. A large central corridor will connect all the buildings, so students can move throughout the school without having to go outside.

"The students won't be in one big school, but more like three smaller schools. Because it is on a military installation, the school will meet all force protection and anti-terrorism requirements," Beauchamp said.

The Department of Defense chose to fund this project after Fort Sill's aging schools made the top 12 on the Defense Department's public school improvement priority list. Freedom Elementary School will have a capacity of 1,300 students and the construction is expected to be complete in early 2015.

Westphal's visit to Fort Sill highlights the Army's commitment to national academic excellence and focus on key family programs, despite fiscal constraints. During his visit he also reinforced the importance of Fort Sill as the Fires Center of Excellence and the installation's critical role in posturing for the Army for the future.