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Two students from Aztec High School in Aztec, New Mexico, describe the chaotic scene at the school when a gunman opened fire Thursday morning, December 7, 2017. One student's cousin was killed in the shooting.Tom Tingle/azcentral.com

Two computer labs repurposed to create open learning commons for students, staff

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AZTEC — Aztec High School students were welcomed back to school this week with a  new learning commons that repurposed the classrooms most affected during a Dec. 7 school shooting that left two students and the shooter dead.

“It felt like a start of a semester,” Principal Warman Hall said today. “We had some kids that still needed some additional emotional support, and we’ve had support providers on scene still to take care of that. But on the whole, it’s been the same stresses that you want to have on the first day of the semester with kids figuring out their schedule and classes and teachers getting their classrooms back int the swing of things.”

The new learning commons on the second floor of the 900 building was finished over the winter break. The space, which was where the bulk of the Dec. 7 violence occurred, had been used as two computer labs, but the district decided to relocate the labs and repurpose the space as the school and community heals from the tragedy that killed Francisco “Paco” Fernandez and Casey Marquez, both 17.

“We want this space to signify that we’re honoring what happened, we’re honoring who we lost, but that the high school is wanting to move on with a sense of purpose,” Hall said. “We want to make sure that that purpose is very strongly connected to the reality that we are a school.”

More: 2 students killed, shooter dead after Aztec High School shooting

The walls of the computer labs were removed to create an open space that will be used as a learning commons. Staff members can reserve the space for class presentations, projects or other learning activities. Students who have open study periods can check in with the school’s transition coordinator, Cammie LePlatt, whose office is in the new lounge, to use the space.

Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said the district purchased laptops to stock the learning commons with, and the new technology can also be transported to classrooms throughout the campus.

The lounge was remodeled over the winter break with some significant investments in time and money from the community. Carpenter said many staff and community members volunteered to help create the space, and some volunteers even spent Christmas working to make sure the commons would be ready by the time school was back in session.

More: Families reunite after Aztec High School shooting

Carpenter said he didn’t know the budget for the student commons because the community raised funds on top of district contributions, and much of the work was finished by volunteers, including Innovative Designs owner and interior designer Katauna Lucas and Winters Construction.

“We’ve received some donations for the construction (and interior design),” Carpenter said. “But as far as the overall budget — and when I say this, it’s not because we have a plethora of funds, but we have the funds to cover it — we said, ‘Get it done.’ We needed to repurpose it. It’s too important not to do.”

Though the commons is open for use, additional changes are planned, mainly in the form of new furniture and some classroom materials, including blackboards that will be mounted on the walls.

More: A quiet New Mexico town tries to make sense of violence after school shooting

Students have been introduced to the space over the course of their first few days back. LePlatt said some students have been reluctant to return to the part of campus associated with the shooting, but when they have, their reception has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“I had kids come up yesterday and (say), ‘This is where I was laying. This is where I was crouching,’ and just trying to walk through it again in their mind, because for most of them, this is the first time they’d been up here (since the shooting) and of course, it looks completely different,” LePlatt said. “But they did it in such a neat, positive, healthy, healing way.”

More: Candlelight vigil focuses on healing after Aztec High School shooting

Hall said the school likely will spend a couple of weeks defining the space. During a tour today, Hall had to remind a number of students that there was no food allowed in the commons, and LePlatt said she had to put the kibosh on a “chair race” and a hacky sack game earlier in the week.

“It’s been really cool for me to be here doing my stuff that I need to do in my office and see kids out here studying and working or hanging out,” LePlatt said.

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or mpetersen@daily-times.com.

More:

Counselors offer advice for families dealing with trauma after Aztec shooting

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