SIOUX CITY -- Joselyn Ibarra veered to a different school for the past three years, while wondering in more recent months what a new Bryant Elementary School might hold for her for fifth grade.
On Friday, Ibarra was among 455 students who started a new school year at the newly-built Bryant. Some had attended the previous Bryant in kindergarten and first grade before the aging building was demolished in summer 2016.
Ibarra, who attended Spalding Park Elementary School while the new Bryant was under construction at the same site as the old one, said the wait for the new building was worth it.
"A lot of things are nice and colorful," Ibarra said. "We have a bigger gym and a bigger cafeteria."
She added the input from a family member who attends North High School: "My sister, she says it looks like a college, it doesn't look like an elementary."
Ibarra also talked briefly about the old Bryant, which dated to 1890, as being in need of retirement.
In 2011 discussions, there was considerable neighborhood controversy on where the Bryant School should be built. After a new 10-acre spot could not be found, school officials settled on a three-level option at the same spot where the old school was located.
The final result was a $24 million building with 106,950 square feet, built to hold up to 625 pupils.
The building has three levels, although from some outside vantages, only two can be seen, with the lower level below ground. Preschool, kindergarten and first grade are on the lower floor, second grade is on the main floor with commons and many specialty areas and the upper floor holds third through fifth grades.
The main drop-off area for driving parents is on the north side. There are separate playground areas, with differing pieces geared to be appropriate for different ages.
Mary Kay Kollars, who has been Bryant principal for 12 years, said those two elements were among the few "glitches" that school users were feeling their way through Friday. Kollars said the morning drop-off of pupils went mostly well, while kids were learning which playground was theirs.
"Overall, it was fairly well prepared. The teachers have got their rooms prepared and they are set to go," Kollars said.
The staff approaches 85 in the building, with lots of support personnel among the 18 classroom teachers. The expectant mood is widespread, Kollars said.
"It has been a long journey...It is pretty much a dream fulfilled," she said.
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Superintendent Paul Gausman was on hand for a short ceremony that began 90 minutes after the school day started. Students over two levels near the commons area recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the school's PAWS pledge ("I will show respect," etc.) and heard from school officials.
"I hope you enjoy your new building, and that you remember it isn't about the building, but learning," Gausman said.
By 10:20 a.m., lunch personnel were transforming the commons by setting up tables, and some students were trying out the gymnasium for the first time.
The gymnasium has a full-size basketball court and two side courts, plus a full stage and band room on its west side, with retractable wall that is sound-deadening so students can do both at the same time.
Two third grade students in the gym raved about the overall size of the building.
"It is really impressive to me," Lilly Campbell said. "Also, the walls are blue, which is one of my favorite colors."
Ivan Rios, another Bryant third-grader, had gone to a Back to School prep event on Thursday, and felt comfortable in the building Friday.
"I like it. This is big. I was surprised how big it is," Rios said.
Thousands of students in Northwest Iowa headed back to classes Friday.
The Sioux City School District and Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City open for the 2019-20 year on Friday, which is the earliest day allowed in Iowa, after a legislative change made a few years ago.
Elsewhere in the city, Siouxland Christian School begins instruction on Monday.
Sergeant Bluff-Luton is another metro area school that began Friday, as did many adjacent rural districts. Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew was among area law enforcement officials who noted people to take notice of the schools starting.
Drew tweeted a photo of a "refresher course for drivers" and topping that by writing, "The first day of school for some area schools. Watch out for the kiddos, and also the excited parents😁."
Schools in Nebraska and South Dakota can begin earlier than in Iowa, and the South Sioux City School District and Dakota Dunes started instruction on Aug. 15.