The high school that tore the Amphitheater school district apart received its first students Aug. 9, more than two years behind schedule.
Laughing, nervous and excited by all the attention their presence at the school had drawn from local news media, the students took their first steps into Ironwood Ridge High School, some immediately getting lost as they explored their new stomping ground.
Located just east of the Shannon Road and Naranja Drive intersection, Ironwood Ridge is nearly complete with construction crews remaining only to finish the Fine Arts building.
The school was scheduled to have opened for the 1999-2000 school year, but a more than two-year court battle over the school's impact on the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl delayed construction (see timeline page 12).
The delay pitted parents against each other as many argued for the school's immediate construction saying their children, wedged into badly overcrowded Canyon del Oro High School, were more important than the pygmy owl, while others argued that battling to save the site in the heart of an area the federal government had designated as critical habitat for the owl was folly and the district should look for another site to build the badly needed school.
In the end, proponents of fighting in court for the first site won the battle, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 1999 the site wouldn't affect the owl and allowing construction of the school, but lost the war as the acrimony over the delays and bickering fueled a recall of the three school board members who most ardently supported the legal fight.
None of that division was apparent last week as students filled the new school's halls for the first time. The only arguing to be heard was about the school's paint scheme, the only conflicts were about skirt length.
About 700 students will attend IRHS this year, taught by 30 teachers and two administrators, Principal Sam McClung said.
The student population is expected to more than double during the next two years as juniors and seniors are added, McClung said. But for now, most of the foundation has been laid, he said.
But that was little consolation to some students on their first day in a bigger pond.
"I've been at Coronado since I was five-years-old, I'm nervous," Jolene Poirier, a freshman, said.
Zack Mullin, another freshman, shared Poirier's fear.
"I'm scared, it's a new high school and I've never even been to high school," Mullin said.
"At least we won't have initiation," said Lary Gorsky, an IRHS freshman and Mullin's friend, concerning the absence of upperclassmen.
"Yeah," Mullin added with some relief.
But as some of Ironwood Ridge's new inhabitants expressed reservations about their new surroundings, others showed a strong sense of school spirit.
"This is going to be the best school ever. Everything is going to be nice," said Robert Fuschini, a freshman and student body representative, who bounced and flailed his arms like a cheerleader for emphasis. "Everything's clean, there isn't even any gum on the campus."
But even Fuschini said he wasn't a fan of the color palette used for the school's interior.
"The pink and green doesn't work," Mullin said.
While the buildings' exteriors are gray, an aqua green and dark orange, the cafeteria and classrooms' floors and walls are painted in pastels.
"It's ugly, look at the colors," Poirier said.
"Whoever painted this was on drugs," said Sam Smith, mother of an IRHS student.
Taking a more proactive approach, Frankie Castro, a freshman, offered to begin taking donations to buy paint to fix the problem.
Assistant Principal Mike Brown said the colors weren't his area of expertise but said Ironwood Ridge's construction was one of the main reasons he chose to switch schools and leave San Manuel Elementary School.
"I just think the design here was so smart," Brown said.
Much of Ironwood Ridge's site is not walled in and there is a lot of outside space for kids to walk around and meet each other, he said. Which also makes his job of monitoring the students a little bit easier.
Brown, a school resource officer from the Pima County Sheriff's Office and two other monitors are tasked with making sure IRHS's students are safe, and dressed appropriately.
"We're going to have some dress code problems here," Brown said as groups of girls streamed past him through the front gates.
There are two main rules for the dress code, both of which are directed at Ironwood Ridge's female students, all shorts and skirts must come down below where their thumbs end when holding their arms straight down, and shoulder straps must be at least an inch thick.
Judging by the first day, Brown said he's going to have some enforcing to do. As administrators and teachers who have been on the job months spend their time targeting last minute problems, some of IRHS's students have already begun doing the same thing.
Last school year, freshmen student government officers from Canyon del Oro High School who were going to attend IRHS held elections at Coronado and Wilson elementary schools.
Glenda Arffa, an Ironwood Ridge physical education teacher, has taken on the task of organizing the student council, which already has 19 members.
"Right now it's kind of a mess," Arffa said.
Members of the student council met several times during the summer and are enrolled in a class that meets three times a week to plan new activities and fund-raising efforts, Arffa said.
"We've no footsteps to follow in so we're starting a new tradition," she said.
Just before 7 a.m. on the first day of school, McClung was walking Ironwood Ridge's perimeter with Amphi Executive Manager Doug Aho chatting about putting on the school's finishing touches.
Two hours from then, buses would roll in and his job as principal would shift gears from preparation to implementation.
Having started work for IRHS in March, McClung said he and the school are ready for its students.
"I'm not nervous," McClung said.
He has not had to worry much about the construction, which was handled primarily by Aho.
The only construction project still underway was in the Fine Arts building, which won't begin holding classes until October, McClung said.
All of the school's teachers were hired more than two months ago and class assignments were made soon after. The curriculum, aligned closely with CDO, was also created months ago.
Three school buses ordered in February for the school, which some district officials worried wouldn't show up on time, arrived more than a week before school started.
As Ironwood Ridge's freshmen and sophomores settled into their shiny new digs, their absence from Canyon del Oro High School was felt and appreciated, Principal Michael Gemma said.
"It would have been a disaster if we'd have had to go one more year," Gemma said about CDO's overcrowding problem that worsened every school year.
Last year, more than 3,000 students were enrolled at CDO. The school, even with several portable classrooms making up a quasi second campus, was only able to hold 2,800 students.
CDO enrolled about 2,400 students this year and that is expected to dwindle even further the next two years as IRHS begins accepting juniors and seniors, Gemma said.
For the first time in several years, CDO held a freshmen orientation that was normally too difficult to organize due to the size of the freshmen classes, Gemma said.
The decreased population has also given CDO's administration some room to maneuver in terms of scheduling, Gemma said.
One of the changes is to the school's block schedule, which had divided classes so that students had each of their courses every other school day.
Under CDO's new schedule, teachers will have their students three times a week and will get their planning period back, which had disappeared thanks to the number of classes and courses needed to handle the overwhelming number of students, Gemma said.
For some CDO students, the biggest concern was that a smaller population would affect the quality of their varsity baseball team.
"Our sports are gonna suck," said Connor Lutz, a CDO junior. "For every single sport, football and baseball, (the good players) came from Wilson and Coronado."
The two main feeder schools for Ironwood Ridge are Coronado and Wilson.
IRHS is projected to have about 1,500 students in three years while Canyon del Oro is expected to have just less than 2,000 students by that time.