FORT RILEY, Kan., May 19, 2011 -- Six future kindergarten students sporting construction hats and big smiles assisted in a groundbreaking ceremony May 19, 2011, for a new elementary school at Fort Riley, Kan.

The new school will be located in Fort Riley's Forsyth neighborhood across from the Outdoor Recreation Center and will have the potential to serve 675 children from the Forsyth and Colyer Manor neighborhoods.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates returned to Fort Riley for the groundbreaking ceremony just more than a year after his last visit to the Kansas post.

"It was a little over a year ago that I participated in a town hall at this post with many military spouses," he said. "Thanks to their honesty and directness, I heard firsthand about the deficiencies with public school facilities here, and I made a commitment to those spouses to address these problems, and today I deliver on that commitment."

The town hall with Gates led to visits to Fort Riley throughout 2010 from Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal and the Red Team -- a part of the secretary of the Army's task force to fix Department of Defense Education Activity schools.

Westphal and the Red Team assessed requirements and developed an efficient, comprehensive Schools Master Plan.

"Today we mark a major step forward in solving school overcrowding here at Fort Riley - a problem that had become a major retention issue for the (1st Infantry) Division, which was on its fourth deployment since 2003," Gates said. "In fact, the department identified the facilities here as most in need of rehabilitation of any across the armed services."

Geary County Unified School District 475 operates five elementary schools and one middle school at the military installation. Five of the six on-post schools are more than 50 years old. Schools on post are 35-percent overcapacity, due in large part to recent growth at the installation.

Temporary fixes for the overcrowding problem have included converting all available usable space in existing facilities into classrooms, which led to a lack of other educational activity space.

A more permanent solution came Oct. 1, 2010, when Westphal approved the initial phase of construction, including the new school and an addition to and modernization of Ware Elementary School as a partnership between the school district and the Residential Communities Initiative partner, Picerne Military Housing.

Subsequent funding requests pending approval for 2012 include renovations to Fort Riley Middle School.

"We were working in Washington, so it took 11 months longer than it should have," Gates joked.

The Department of the Army has more than 150 public schools on military installations across America, and a recent assessment found that many other school districts have similar difficulties raising the revenue required to meet capacity requirements and rehabilitate aging facilities, Gates said.

"Going forward would be the responsibility of all stakeholders including local, state and federal governments to address this problem," Gates said. "As an initial step, Congress has appropriated $250 million for the Department of Defense to directly assist school districts in revitalizing the neediest on-installation public schools."

"That funding will pay for this elementary school and also provide the resources this year for resolving capacity issues at Fort Riley Middle School," he said.

The building of this new school will not only reduce issues with overcrowding, but reduce transportation costs for the district and the amount of time students spend on buses traveling to and from school.

Crews will begin breaking ground on the $20-million facility this summer. Design packages are currently being developed, and plans include energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems, and state-of-the-art computer and science lab work areas for students. The school is scheduled to be completed for the 2012 to 2013 school year.

"While local school districts should and will remain ultimately responsible for their public school facilities located on military installations, the Department of Defense will always remain ready to intervene when it has the ability to improve the educational opportunities of our military children," Gates said. "We owe nothing less to our men and women in uniform and their families who have sacrificed so much in order to serve their country."

Four-year-old Jaheim Flournoy's family will benefit from the new school. Jaheim was one of the five future students participating in the ceremony who will attend the Forsyth school.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity to come (to Fort Riley) at this time when he's in preschool, and then to carry on to be the first one to go into kindergarten for the school's grand opening," said Jaheim's mother, Staff Sgt. Tara Flournoy, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.

Flournoy was joined by her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Perry Flournoy, 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Inf. Div., and their daughter, Pfc. Jequitia Flournoy, 1st Engineer Battalion, 555th Engineer Brigade.

The new school will allow for smaller class sizes and more individualized attention for students.

"With the teacher-to-children ratio being smaller, that means that gives them more opportunity for the children to have advantages with the teacher for education," Flournoy said. "So this is great for the school to be opening to expand the school and classrooms."

Jaheim was one of the five future kindergartners participating in the ceremony.

Other future kindergartners participating in the groundbreaking were 4-year-olds Sarai Munoz, Alyssa Thompson, Kyler Urban and Alex Polen, and 3-year-old Taryn Stevenson, Forsyth Child Development Center.

Also at the groundbreaking ceremony were Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Lynn Jenkins, along with Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley commanding general; Joseph Calcara, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Installations, Housing and Partnerships; Ron Walker, superintendent, Geary County Unified School District 475; and Brian Beauregard, program director, Picerne Military Housing.