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Dr. Levesque Elementary School proves learning is more than just a building

ST. AGATHA, Maine – The first half of the school year is in the books for staff and students of Dr. Levesque Elementary School, and a new makeshift learning environment to replace their burned building has proven that what makes the school successful is more about people than concrete. 

Despite the efforts of several St. John Valley fire departments, Dr. Levesque Elementary School burned to the ground on Sunday, July 25, as a horrified community watched. The fire was likely electrical and started in a wall between the gymnasium and the nurse’s office, the State Fire Marshal’s Office said. 

District officials moved quickly to provide a new learning space for the 130 students, 10 full-time teachers and 10 additional staff displaced by the fire just a month before the new school year began. 

Grades one to six were set up in classrooms in a wing of Wisdom/Middle High School. Pre-K and Kindergarten students are learning in the fellowship hall of the adjacent Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church. 

A modular double classroom for Pre-K and kindergarten is on site at the Wisdom school parking lot and being readied for students who may move to new classrooms in that building after February break. 

“When looking at all that had to be accomplished to get the buildings, staff and students ready, I feel that what has been done has been extraordinary,” Principal Cheryl Hallowell said. “We were blessed to have supportive communities and contributors near and far that truly rallied around us. When school started, we had everything needed in place for our learners.”

The two-time blue ribbon winning school was both nationally recognized for its excellence and beloved in the community.

The elements that made Dr. Levesque exceptional are all still present, Hallowell said. 

“It has never been about the building. It has been about what happens within the walls of the school. The dedication, enthusiasm and high standards are still strong and evident in the new Dr. Levesque walls,” she said. 

“To quote a second-grader on the first day of school, ‘I know that this isn’t Dr. Levesque, but it feels like Dr. Levesque.’ To me, there was no better compliment,” Hallowell said. 

Lana Cyr, the mother of three Dr. Levesque students – CJ, a third grader, Natalise, a kindergarten student, and Leo, in Pre-K – said the loss of the building to fire was heartbreaking.

“I attended that school as a child and had so many great memories there. It was nice to see my kids there and build memories there too. It was a huge part of our community,” she said. 

Despite the loss, Cyr said she was moved as a mother by how quickly administrators and staff worked together to develop a new learning space for the students. 

“It reflected on how much they truly love their jobs and love our children – they all had our children’s best interests in mind,” Cyr said. 

Cyr said her children have adapted well to the new learning environment. 

Natalise is enthusiastic about reading and Leo enjoys singing songs he learns at school about the days of the week or months of the year. 

“(CJ) always has math or science stories to tell me, but is always most excited about recess and gym,” Cyr said. “Aside from it being a different building, it still feels like Dr. Levesque for him.

“At the end of the day, it was just a building. Dr. Levesque Elementary, the spirit and atmosphere, came from the staff, teachers and administrators, which is exactly why they had been able to make this transition so smooth for our children in the very little time they had,” Cyr said. 

Plans for a possible new Dr. Levesque Elementary School building are complicated, Superintendent Ben Sirois said. 

“The MSAD33 Board of Directors would like to proceed with building a new school in the district, but they also know that is not solely their decision to make,” Sirois said. “The board must appeal to the State Board of Education on this matter, specific to being placed on a major capital school construction list, which they are not currently on.”  

“Presently, the board has authorized for a comprehensive evaluation of the current Wisdom Middle/High School, specifically for structural, electrical and fire safety, so that they are more aware of what their current school has for potential issues. Additionally, complete insurance claim information is forthcoming,” Sirois said.  

Once that information has been collected, the board will inquire about options for rebuilding.

“At that time, they will know more about whether it is more advantageous, both educationally and financially, to look to rebuild a school for elementary students, to rebuild a school for all district students, or to work toward a renovation of the current Wisdom school building,” Sirois said. “These are all questions that are currently unanswered and whatever direction the board chooses to go in, must be approved by the Frenchville and St. Agatha communities.”

In the meantime, the spirit of Dr. Levesque continues. 

“The loss of Dr. Levesque Elementary School was devastating and heartbreaking, but those are not the feelings we have each day. We see that no one was hurt, things can be replaced, and our students and staff remain in the district,” Hallowell said. “When you walk through the (other buildings housing the students) you see good teaching, hear laughter and feel the community that still is Dr. Levesque Elementary School.”

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