Michelle Fleetwood and her daughter China Robertson graduated from Ellet high school 23 years apart. On Saturday, they sat together inside their alma mater, marveling at its new home.

“Just coming in the doors with all the colors and the light, it looks like a TV high school, like something you would see on a Nickelodeon show,” said Robertson, class of 2015.

“I love the memorial bricks at the front of the school,” said Fleetwood, who graduated in 1992, referring to the red pavers at the entrance doors that are engraved with the names and memories of Orangemen who have come before.

“I saw families stop and look for their bricks,” Fleetwood said, adding that it’s good to remember the past while heading into the future.

They were among hundreds of people who crowded the hallways, classrooms and specialty nooks and crannies of the new Ellet Community Learning Center on Saturday during an open house to show off the open, airy, three-story building.

The old Ellet high school, which opened in 1950, still stands across the parking lot from the new school and will soon be demolished.

The project is part of an ongoing Akron Public Schools plan launched 16 years ago to remodel or rebuild district buildings. The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission oversees the program, picking up 59% of the cost. People who live or work in Akron pick up the rest of the cost through an income tax increase that voters approved in 2003.

Eric and Linda Williams met at Ellet and later married. He was class of 1973 and played tenor saxophone in the band. She was class of 1974 and played clarinet.

They live in Tallmadge now but came back to Ellet on Saturday to see what had changed.

“It’s stunning,” Eric Williams said.

They were especially impressed with the auditorium.

Gone were the hard wooden seats, replaced with two tiers of cushioned seats like those in modern movie theaters. The carpeted gray and silver space, with seating for 775, has the lighting and technology to host anything from plays and concerts to films and speeches.

“We may not live in Ellet anymore,” Linda Williams said, “but our hearts are here.”

Not far away, the Hawks family was passing through the cafeteria, which is now called student dining, a space filled with round tables that is open to the rest of the school.

Valerie Lowe Hawks, Ellet class of 1978, was thrilled the new high school includes separate rooms for instrumental and vocal classes, which had to share space at the old Ellet.

Her son, Alex Hawks, class of 2010, had only seen a bit of the building but said his favorite thing so far was something mentioned by everyone interviewed for this article: The new high school has central air conditioning.

“Sitting in seventh and eighth period, it got so hot sometimes, I remember thinking I was going to pass out,” Hawks said.

He also said the new high school’s layout will make it easier for students.

The old Ellet building was a squared-off “U” shape with a parking lot in the middle. Students who had a class in one leg of the “U” followed by class in the other leg had two choices: Walk the entire U-shape or take their chances going outside, crossing the parking lot and hoping the doors were open.

But the doors, especially after school shootings across the country, were usually locked, Hawks said.

China Robertson, who graduated five years after Hawks, recalled getting stuck outside.

“And you’d be out there with no coat, on a winter day with a heavy book bag pounding and pounding on the door, just hoping someone would let you in,” Robertson said. “It was the worst.”

Hawks went on to graduate from Ohio University, after changing majors four times and considering dropping out.

Robertson, who studied early childhood education at Ellet, has recently been studying cosmetology.

Both loved Ellet, but said the school did not adequately prepare them for the future and how they fit into it.

Hawks said his classmates who wanted to pursue higher education had to seek out a college prep path to get there on their own.

He thinks that’s changing at Ellet, which is better focused on launching every student into college or into a trade, which Hawks emphasized can be just as valuable as higher education.

Ohio's annual report card gave Ellet an F grade for the 2017-2018 school year for how it prepared students for future opportunities, whether through training in a technical field or preparing them for college. Akron Public Schools, likewise, scored an F in this category and D for overall performance among all its schools.

Robertson said she wished the school offered personality testing like the University of Akron does that helps match students’ skills and passions to possible careers.

Fleetwood, her mom, said finding the right job is important.

“I tell all my children to try anything they want to do,” said Fleetwood, who said she has found joy and purpose working as a caregiver for developmentally disabled clients of Hattie Larlham.

“You don’t want to do something 30 or 40 years and wake up every morning dreading going to work,” said. “You have to find something you love.”


 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettabj.