(From left) Connor Tardif, Graham Murphy and Hayden Pelletier play on the carpet in Amy Pelletier's first grade classroom during an open house Wednesday night. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

ST. AGATHA, Maine — On the first day of classes for the students of Dr. Levesque Elementary, a young boy leapt off the bus and ran full tilt through the rain to the front doors of his new school.

More than a month after the community watched most of the Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville burn to the ground, the 130 students and 20-plus staff displaced by the fire began the year Thursday in temporary classrooms while the district decides how to cope with the loss long term.

For now, the elementary school is made up of a wing at Wisdom Middle/High School in St. Agatha and the basement of the adjacent St. Agatha Catholic Church. The latter is a temporary home for the kindergarten and pre-K classes, which will move to a modular classroom in the Wisdom parking lot when the unit arrives next month.

While the 70-year-old Dr. Levesque building — which predated modern sprinkler systems — is a total loss and there are no plans yet for a new building, teachers and students said getting back to school has put the world to rights.

Kindergarten student Lauryn Wilcox smiled as her mom filled out paperwork at an open house at the new elementary school classrooms on Wednesday night. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

Students and parents got their first glances into the new classrooms on Wednesday evening at an open house. Kids thrilled at the decorations and new furniture — much of which was donated from other schools in the area and funded by contributions from people across Maine and beyond.

The rooms, once outdated and carpeted from wall to wall, now have new flooring and fresh coats of paint. Brightly colored rugs and furniture fill the classrooms, and the walls are adorned with hand-made lettering and artwork from the teachers. In one classroom, an analogue clock forms the “O” in a multi-colored, paper “YOU MATTER,” hanging at the front of the class.  

Students were eager to get back into their classrooms. Their older counterparts at Wisdom started school on Aug. 25.

“I wish we started when they [the middle and high schoolers] started,” fifth-grader Payton Wilcox said, as she and her classmates explored their new classroom.

The SAD 33 community has worked nonstop at Wisdom for the past six weeks to prepare for the arrival of students Thursday morning.

While teachers, administrators and volunteers remodeled inside, contractors added ADA accessible ramps and new stairs to the separate entryway to the Dr. Levesque wing. Workers were still running plumbing and electricity to the future site of the modular classroom Wednesday night.

Even with an otherwise long wait list for local contractors, Principal Cheryl Hallowell said people dropped everything to help get the school up to code for the elementary students.

During a Wednesday night open house, Sam (left) and Simon Paradis look through books donated to Dr. Levesque Elementary School after the building burned down in July. So many books were donated that the school is giving hundreds of extras back to the students. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

“Some of these [customers] had [contractors] set up last summer and they allowed us to butt in,” Hallowell said. “That’s how supportive this community is. That’s how good they are. They said, ‘No, go to the school.’”

Students will likely have questions about the loss of the old school, first grade teacher Amy Pelletier said. She is prepared to have an open dialogue about what it means to have to say goodbye to that building, and take on a new, temporary environment.

“It was just a building: the walls and the wood did not make Dr. Levesque school,” Pelletier said. “[The students] make Dr. Levesque school.”

SAD 33 received the first insurance payment on the old school on Sept. 3. Superintendent Ben Sirois said that money will go directly to paying for the modular classroom and the work that was done to bring the Wisdom wing up to code.

The initial abatement work has begun on the still-standing Red Wing and Kindergarten Wing of the old Dr. Levesque school. Though some items, including a handful of smart-boards, were salvaged, the structural and water damage was too significant to save the structure, Sirois said.

Fifth grade teacher Liza Pelletier’s temporary classroom in Wisdom Middle/High school. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

Planning for the future of the Dr. Levesque school and its students will begin in earnest at the next SAD 33 meeting, when Sirois said the school board will ask its facilities committee to convene to discuss what’s next.

The weeks of planning and work to get the students back to school on time were stressful, Hallowell said, but as the first day of classes approached, she noticed a difference in the teachers. For the first time, they began to seem truly optimistic about the year.

“The disbelief, the sadness, the anger, you name it. We’ve gone through the stages of grief, we have. We have lost something big,” Hallowell said. “We just need our little ones here to make it real. And I think once they’re here we will have a big sigh of relief.”

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.