The Chirico triplets were seventh graders at Cheltenham's Cedarbrook Middle School when they were ripped from their familiar routines, and many of their friends, by an unlikely culprit: Mold, which had plagued the building for years and by early 2014 was so bad, school leaders decided to tear it down and rebuild.
By eighth grade, Zoe, Lea, and Abby were studying at what the district called Cedarbrook East — a crowded basement of a Catholic church where the classrooms were hot, the lunches came from home because there was no cafeteria, and the kids were sometimes told to keep quiet because a funeral was going on upstairs.
"It wasn't ideal," Zoe Chirico, now a senior at Cheltenham High School, said with understatement, recalling the hassles of watching her friends dispatched to the two other locations, or the complicated routine of getting dressed for sports and then taking a bus ride to playing fields at the old Cedarbrook site.
This summer, the triplets and their mother were among the first groups to tour the long-awaited, brand-new Cedarbrook Middle School — a $55 million project that involved stripping the moldy building to its steel columns, joists, and elevated floor slabs, and then building it back up as a bright, airy, and environmentally friendly schoolhouse with a new gym and its library converted to a "learning commons."
"Honestly the first thing that went through my mind was jealousy," said Abby Chirico after attending the first open house this month and reliving some of her middle-school horror stories with her sisters. She called the new, 180,000-square-foot Cedarbrook "amazing — the atmosphere was really bright, and a place that kids would love to be in."
Officials in the Montgomery County district, who held a gala ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday night ahead of the opening of school Monday for as many as 850 seventh and eighth graders, are both eagerly touting the high-tech features of the new middle school and hoping that Cheltenham has finally turned the page on the mold crisis that angered parents and disrupted student life for more than four years.
"It is a sense of bringing family back — it's been a long time coming," superintendent Wagner Marseilles says on a short video touting the project, showing kids gawking at the well-lit hallways and spacious gym.
At the same time, district officials acknowledge they're continuing to track ongoing mold problems at Cheltenham High and the district's administration building, with several remediation projects or classrooms that were closed off even as crews were busy on the Cedarbrook project.
Julie Haywood, the Cheltenham school board president, insisted that the district is staying on top of any problems at its older facilities. "Any time that we have any issues that are brought to our attention, they are immediately addressed," she said.
It's a sensitive topic because of lingering resentment from parents and others who said the district dragged its feet on aggressively tackling mold problems at Cedarbrook despite complaints that began not long after the school opened in 1970 — even as teachers and some students insisted the building was making them sick.
When the mold crisis peaked with several outbreaks during the 2013-14 school year, district officials had few good solutions, and the ultimate choice — dispersing students to three separate sites, including Cedarbrook East at the St. Joseph Parish School, Cedarbrook West at a property on Ivy Hill Road, and Cedarbrook Central at Cheltenham High School during the lengthy rebuilding — satisfied almost no one.
"This is a problem of the last 20 or 30 years," said Nigel Blower, whose son is a junior at Cheltenham and attended the Ivy Hill facility for middle school. "Look at schools with more aggressive maintenance programs — buildings built at the same time are in better condition."
"I'm not exactly happy with how they handled it — it took them too long and too much money to come to the same place that we are at," said Lisa Payne-Chirico, the mother of the triplets, complaining of cost overruns that were not in the original budget.
But Cheltenham school leaders are hoping the arrival of the new building — which is qualified for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver certification, and boasts 100 percent daylighting, or natural light through huge windows and skylights — will silence any remaining critics. It also includes a state-of-the-art auditorium with seating for more than 700 students.
"One of the things we talked about most is that all spaces should be flexible and all spaces should be transparent, so that anyone walking through the building should be able to see the learning that happens in every space," Marcy Hockfield, the Cedarbrook principal, says in the district video.
Certainly some of those who were most vocal during the mold crisis are impressed.