As a dense fog lifted Wednesday morning, Brandon Phenix opened the doors and invited everyone to "come on in."
Anxious students and their family members had lined the sidewalk, and they entered Fremont International Academy through a gauntlet of high fives and fist bumps from community "ambassadors."
Inside, backpacks were put away and teachers welcomed new students into brightly-lit classrooms.
After a three-year hiatus, Fremont was officially back to school.
The building at 115 East Emmett Street closed in 2016 due to restructuring of the Battle Creek Public Schools district amidst a $3.6 million budget shortfall. Two attempts to sell the building fell through before it was pulled it from the real estate market.
“The building was closed for three years, and the district did a good job maintaining it," said Phenix, Fremont's principal. "Lots of things to refresh the building, but it also in some ways has those historical bones, which is still Fremont."
Fremont re-opened Wednesday with a focus on world languages students in pre-kindergarten though second grade. All students will receive daily Spanish instruction.
Phenix said that, once the pre-kindergartners arrive after Labor Day, the school will have 220 pupils. Enrollment was based on a lottery system, and Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS) plans on adding one grade per year up to fifth grade by the 2022-23 school year, bringing estimated enrollment to 350.
The school follows the International Baccalaureate model, focusing on experiential and inquiry-based learning and emphasizing accelerated coursework that helps students learn about other cultures and languages. It cannot gain official certification until observed by International Baccalaureate representatives for three years.
Kate Flores, a Battle Creek City Commissioner who represents Ward 3 where the school is located, was among parents ushering their kids into Fremont. She and her husband, Israel Flores, accompanied their two sons into their respective classrooms.
“Our youngest insisted we walk to school, and it was a nice stroll over here," she said. "Then getting here and the excitement and energy right now in the building from the moment you walk in, is making it a special way to come back to school and to feel good about where they are and the people they are with.
“It’s great for my kids here, but, for the broader neighborhood, it is a really big deal the school is reopening. That’s what I hear consistently from people in the neighborhood, they are really excited about it. It brings new life to the neighborhood."
Israel Flores was born in Mexico City and speaks Spanish as his native language, so the couple was excited about the prospect of broadening their sons' vocabulary in multiple languages beyond what is used in the home.
"Our kids have been speaking and understanding Spanish since they were babies, but they don’t know how to read and write it yet," Kate Flores said. "Even speaking sometimes is a challenge. So the extra reinforcement of their language, and to view it positively and that it’s really cool to be bilingual...to have that affirmed in a school environment is a dream come true."
BCPS received a $51 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2017 meant to bolster educational outcomes in the district. Foundation CEO La June Montgomery Tabron said the district needed "transformational change" when the five-year grant was announced.
Some of that transformation was on display at Fremont, as well as at the Battle Creek STEM Innovation Center, a newly-opened middle school academy located at Battle Creek Central High School.
Phenix said part of his responsibility as principal and elementary magnet coordinator at BCPS is to ensure "families here at Fremont are invested in the transformation taking place over the district."
"I want to make sure they feel that investment in transformation happening here at Fremont, because I think that will restore their optimism," he said. "Now they go to BC STEM, Springfield, then the high school. 'I see my child for the next 12 years being a Battle Creek Bearcat,' and that is really important to me.
"I love the heck out of it," said Kathy Szanda Wilson, one of the ambassadors who greeted students outside the school on the first day of class. "We give them high fives, the joy on their faces, I get to see other people in the community who are equally as interested in helping Battle Creek Public Schools succeed.
"My kids are 20 and 25 now, so I don’t get this anymore," she said. "This is where my daughter went to kindergarten, so this building holds a special place in my heart."