The new school should open in September 2021

Students starting the 2021 school year at Dover Air Force Base will have something special to go along with their pristine notebooks and freshly-sharpened pencils: a new school.

Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new K-8 facility were held Monday morning in the base housing area.

The $48-million building will replace the current Maj. George S. Welch Elementary School and the Dover AFB Middle School.

The site for the new building is across Old Lebanon Road from the old school, and construction is expected to start within the next two months, Caesar Rodney School District board of education President Jessica Marelli said.

While the project is financed by the Department of Defense Education Activity and managed through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it will be administered by the CR School District.

Initially budgeted at a little more than $44 million, during the planning phase district officials learned there would be more money needed because of rising labor and material costs, Marelli said. The district was able to work with DODEA officials, who provided the additional cash after an inspection tour showed them the true state of the current facilities.

60-year-old schools

The current middle school building once housed the Dover AFB High School, which was shut down in 1980 and its students shifted to Caesar Rodney High School. Most graduates of the middle school now move on to CRHS.

The two schools were built in 1960, replacing old barracks-style classrooms and at the time were considered some of the most modern in the state. But their upkeep has become increasingly burdensome and expensive, Marelli said.

“Caesar Rodney has the best maintenance,” she said. “We maintain our buildings flawlessly. We do our very best, but at the same time, there’s only so much you can do with a building that’s more than 50 years old.

“It’s time,” Marelli added.

A third, elementary school at the base, named after Air Force Gen. Henry H. Arnold, was demolished six years ago.

District officials have cited ADA compliance issues, difficulty in retrofitting the buildings with new technology, security issues and problems with keeping the buildings heated and air-conditioned as major issues.

Current plans call for enrollment of a little fewer than 500 students and a footprint of about 105,000 square feet, slightly smaller than the two old schools combined.

Although employees of the CR school district can request special permission to attend the schools, enrollment otherwise is restricted to the children of airmen stationed at Dover AFB.

Shared space

The building is designed by Zyscovich Architects of Miami, Fla., and will incorporate flexible learning spaces, encourage student and teacher collaboration and outdoor learning activities. Because the schools are near the St. Jones River, they’ll include outside classrooms and have an overall nature-based theme that will make use of the natural resources in the area.

The elementary and middle schools will share dining and media centers, as well as administrative offices. There will be two separate gymnasiums for the students.

“Having a new school is a grand opportunity to make sure that the facility is accommodating learning in the 21st century,” Delaware Education Secretary Dr. Susan Bunting said before the ceremony. “Technology has changed and technology upgrades will be really important to the students at the school.

“It’s always wonderful to be in a new facility with all the modern conveniences, so it will enhance the learning that happens and high-quality education will continue as it has in the past, but it will be upgraded and made better for the future,” she said.

The Dover AFB Middle School has one of the top five education programs in the Department of Defense school system, according to the website.

The Welch school has been acknowledged as one of the best elementary schools in Delaware, Marelli said.

436th Airlift Wing commander Col. Joel W. Safranek said he considers the new schools one of the most important things to take place so far during his tenure at Dover AFB.

“We make it a priority in this wing to take care of our airmen and their families,” he said. “Having a school that is fit for what they need and doing the things they’ll be able to do at the school for years to come is absolutely a priority of this wing’s mission.”

Marelli is enthusiastic about the future.

“We can’t wait for this project to be completed and we stand ready to assist in any way that we can,” she said. “The children of Dover Air Force Base deserve the best teachers and the best education possible, and soon they will have the type of facilities that they deserve.”