ABOUT THE SCHOOLS
Ooltewah Elementary School
* Estimated cost: $21 million
Will become Hamilton County's largest elementary school
* Capacity: 1,100 students
* Estimated fall enrollment: About 800 students (average state enrollment: 496)
Red Bank Middle School
* Estimated cost: $29 million
* Capacity: 750 students
* Enrollment: About 600 students
Source: Times Free Press archives
Birchwood Elementary School
* 1915: Two-room schoolhouse later incorporated into Hamilton County sets the foundation for Birchwood.
* 1922: Eight students graduate from Birchwood's first class
* 2013: School incorporated with Ooltewah Elementary School.
* Online slide show: www.timesfreepress.com/videos/2013/may/05/6603/
With just 18 days before Hamilton County students return to classes, the countdown is on to finish $50 million worth of new school construction.
Construction on the mammoth new Ooltewah Elementary School and replacement Red Bank Middle School is winding down. On Thursday, the new Ooltewah school was filled with the sound of power drills and hammering. Power flickered on and off.
"There it goes again," Principal Tom Arnold said. "That's the third time."
Ooltewah's titanic, 136,000-square-foot schoolhouse will be the largest elementary school in Hamilton County. Workers have installed lights with cherry pickers, painted drop-off lanes in the parking lot and checked classroom inventories.
Brenda Cothran, who was only appointed Ooltewah Elementary's assistant principal last week, joined Arnold to inspect hallway upon hallway of cardboard boxes and power tools during Thursday morning's routine walk-through.
"If we catch something and it's not in the right place, this is the time to catch it," Arnold said. "We don't want to wait until October."
Across town, crews are finishing up work on the 160,000-square-foot Red Bank Middle, tucked away behind Red Bank High School off Morrison Springs Road.
At Ooltewah, teachers will only be allowed into their new classrooms starting July 29. Parents and students will first be able to see the building's fresh multicolored digs during an Aug. 7 open house, the night before school starts.
Each bare-bones classroom is currently tagged with a checklist of incoming items including the usual bookcase, horseshoe-shaped table and 70-inch flat-screen television monitor.
"The teachers will be able to use their ... I've got to find the word for it," Arnold said.
"Instructional monitors," Cothran, said with a dry chuckle.
"Instructional monitors to be able to broadcast things," Arnold continued. "Because that's what they are. They're not TVs. There's going to be one TV in the office that will have cable, but there will not be any cable service throughout the whole building."
The new additions are about more than technology. Ooltewah now boasts two separate colorful gymnasiums -- a departure from what Arnold called the "cafe-gym-itorium" setup of the old, smaller facility. Although Arnold expects the new building to house about 800 students this year, the new building aims for a capacity of 1,100 young learners.
The Ooltewah facility will incorporate 125 students from the now-closed Birchwood Elementary. Parents and teachers alike are hoping the students will transition smoothly from a small school into one of the state's largest elementary campuses.
"So far they've been very open to it and understanding," Arnold said. "We have a number of parents from Birchwood who are now involved with our PTA."
Mary Ann Orr's son attended Birchwood before its closure, and will transition into fifth grade at Ooltewah.
"He's very worried about it," Orr said.
But if the changes are going to be rocky, they may as well be colorful.
Ooltewah's new vivid hallways stick out with eye-catching paint hues. Kindergarteners will use the yellow hallways and third-graders take blue. But orange is shared between first and second grades, as well as green for fourth- and fifth-graders.
"Some grades are going to have to share a color," Arnold said. "But we share well at this school."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.