OOLTEWAH, TN (WRCB) -  Thursday was a day of firsts at the new Ooltewah Elementary:  the first lunch in a shiny new cafeteria, the first day on three new playgrounds, and the first raising of the flag.  Fifth grader Hannan Irwin and fourth grader Saul Fitzke had the honors, accompanied by proud principal Tom Arnold.

Arnold said, "It has taken years of planning and construction to get to this day, but we've made it.  Our teachers and students couldn't be more excited."  Noting the daunting length of the school, which spans the size of two football fields, Arnold added, "By next week, I may need new shoes."

But it's a small price to pay for moving up to a bigger, brighter school.  The old school, located just off Interstate 75, was built in 1954 in a rural setting.  Now surrounded by Walmart, Burger King, and dozens of other retail outlets, traffic had become a nightmare each morning and afternoon.  County Commissioner Chester Bankston said, "We will be selling that property soon.  It was not a good elementary school atmosphere for this day and time, not to mention the community growth we are experiencing."

Although the new school is built to hold 1100 students, there were already 824 on opening day, with more students expected to enroll before Labor Day.  Bankston has little doubt that more classroom space will be needed in that part of the county, even with a new East Brainerd Elementary school set to open within two years.

Several hundred of the first-day students are transfers from Snow Hill, which had crowding problems of its own, and Birchwood, which was closed last spring.  Parents are raving about the new school's location, just off Mountain View Road, about two miles north of Ooltewah High.  Tucked amid trees at the foot of White Oak Mountain, Arnold says the school should provide a spectacular view when fall colors are at their peak.

In addition to the scenery, the school features modern technology, up-to-date wiring, a large library, two music rooms, two gyms, and forty spacious classrooms.  Hallways are color-coded and bright, and the cafeteria features acoustic tiles to make lunchtime easier on the ears.  Arnold also praised the school's infant and child care program, which he called "a great recruiting tool for teachers with young families." 

The school was built at a cost of $21 million, and assistant superintendent Gary Waters said he was thrilled with the opening day success of both the Ooltewah and Red Bank schools.  "They are beautiful, energy-efficient and great places to learn," Waters said.