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1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – School staff direct children onto the Ellis D. Parker Elementary School campus for the first day of in-person learning at Fort Rucker's new school Oct. 1. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL
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2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Dr. Lisa B. Coleman, Department of Defense Education Activity’s Georgia-Alabama Community superintendent, directs a student to her grade's entryway at Parker Elementary School Oct. 1. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL
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3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – First grade teachers welcome their students to their first day of in-person learning at the new Parker Elementary School. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL
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4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Fort Rucker's new Ellis D. Parker Elementary School just prior to students arriving for their first day of in-person learning Oct. 1. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Fort Rucker students making their historic first foray into Ellis D. Parker Elementary School Oct. 1 for in-person learning made for a true “goose bump” experience, according to the school’s principal.

“When the kids were coming across the street, several times I had to take a deep breath and my eyes filled with tears – it’s been a long time coming,” Dr. Vicki Gilmer, Parker Elementary School principal said. “It was a dream that took a while to come true. To finally be able to receive our children – it is just amazing.”

Those goose bumps spread from Gilmer to the entirety of the school’s teaching and administrative staff, and also to Dr. Lisa B. Coleman, Department of Defense Education Activity’s Georgia-Alabama Community superintendent, who was on hand to help get the proceedings under way.

“I am overwhelmed with emotion, excitement and anticipation -- and just a bit of nervousness, because we wanted it all to be perfect, and it was a great and perfect opening this morning,” Coleman said after the students were all escorted to their new communities broken up between pre-kindergarten to sixth grade. “It was just a great day, and we are so excited to see children and they’re excited to see us. We’ve been looking forward to it for so very long – we’re just ready for this to be a great year.”

Another person overwhelmed in the moment was Mary Salerno, assistant principal, who said it was the first time in months she’d seen school buses on post.

“As that first bus pulled up and I saw it coming into the parking lot, the emotion was just super overwhelming,” she said. “Having the kids come down off the bus so full of excitement to be here in school was just really the best feeling.”

After preparing in the new school over the summer only to not have students in their classrooms when the school year started because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, for teachers, like Maria Schultz, first grade teacher, seeing their pupils’ faces – both familiar and new -- was a long-awaited thrill.

“I am so excited – when the children started arriving outside, they were all standing in front of the window like kids at Christmas,” Schultz said. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since the first day we went to remote learning last year. I feel so blessed to be able to be with my students again.”

Her first-grade students were also happy to be back with their teachers and friends in the new facility, she added.

“They love this school – they’re so happy that it’s all decorated and I’m hearing really positive things. They are pumped to be back,” Schultz said, adding that greetings are a little modified thanks to the realities of COVID-19. “They really want hugs, so that was kind of hard to tell them – air hugs, air hugs –they’re just full of excitement.”

Sixth graders were excited to be in the new school, as well, including Dorian Smith and Vanessa Andrade.

“This is very exciting – the new school is so much different,” Smith said. “It’s definitely much larger. The classroom are a lot bigger -- this is a truly amazing school.”

Andrade agreed with Smith, adding that it was also great to be physically back in school.

“It is better to learn in person – it’s better face-to-face,” she said. “Thank you to everyone for putting in the hard work to make this amazing school.”

Both students then gave an enthusiastic “Go Patriots!” before heading back to class.

But not all Patriots were at the first day for in-person learning at Parker Elementary School, according to Gilmer, who said about 70 students signed up for virtual learning for the entire first semester, which ends in December.

“In January, when the second half of year starts, they will have the option to return to brick and mortar if they so choose,” she said, adding she had a message for the Patriots unable to take part in the opening day excitement. “I am proud of your work – I’m hearing good things about you – and I want you guys to keep up the good work.”

While everyone at the school agrees it is great to have the majority of students back in their classrooms, Gilmer said the mission remains the same.

“We’re focusing on our mission to educate, empower and engage our students, and this school is designed for that,” she said. “They go into their neighborhoods and they instantly become a part of a group that’s going to be problem-solvers and deep thinkers – they’re going to be able to have dialogue and conversations with one another.

“I want to thank the staff – they have done an incredible job working remotely, reaching kids through the computer screen,” Gilmer added. “They were teaching online in the evening, tutoring, making sure every child was wherever they needed to be – even in a remote setting. Just a huge shutout to the Parker Elementary School staff – they can teach here, there or anywhere.”

Coleman thanked the school’s and DODEA’s military partners, as well, for making the new school a reality.

“It was an outstanding show of support on display this morning and I say thank you to them,” she said. “We serve our warfighters children – it is our pleasure to serve them. We are one force, one fight and definitely Above the Best.”