More than 900 students and 50 faculty members in a formerly strife-torn region of Kosovo returned to a fully revamped school this fall, thanks to a collaborative humanitarian-assistance project by U.S. partner agencies.
Representatives from U.S. Embassy Pristina, the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. European Command and Kosovo’s Ministry of Education joined city leaders Sept. 9 in Mitrovica for the reopening of Musa Hoti Primary School. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District managed the half-million-dollar renovation, handing over a more sustainable facility that should significantly boost safety and improve the learning environment, officials said.
EUCOM funded the overhaul, which began in March, through the embassy’s Office of Defense Cooperation. The contractor, Lesna, employed about 30 local workers in meeting a short timeline to have the school ready for the start of the new academic year.
“I had an opportunity to see the building in operation before the renovation,” said Jack Galloway, the special projects team lead for Europe District’s Engineering and Construction Division. “It was in awful condition, and very hazardous. This building was substantially improved. The contractor did an excellent job meeting the project schedule, which enabled the school to open on time. We got a complete renovation for $522,000, at least a quarter of what a similar job would cost in the U.S.”
U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Tracey Jacobson, among the dignitaries at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, said strengthening the nation’s education system is a shared goal that will benefit its entire population – and America is proud to play a part in that endeavor.
“We are thrilled to see the quality work and vast improvements,” she told the audience in prepared remarks released by the embassy. “The students have a much better learning environment, which will enable them to grow and prosper intellectually as a result of our joint work and efforts. … This project is another example of European Command’s interest in supporting the broad development of Kosovo. EUCOM is committed to supporting both Kosovo’s security sector reform and also assisting Kosovo in improving its capacity to deliver essential services to its citizens.
“We are proud of all that has been accomplished to date, and look forward to continuing our partnership and cooperation with the Ministry of Education and the local municipalities in future projects in the educational sector.”
Musa Hoti, built more than 60 years ago by local volunteers, had severely deteriorated in recent decades. This project featured the renovation of 17 classrooms and common areas to elevate safety and working standards for students and staff.
The refurbishment included replacement of windows, doors, and most electrical outlets and lighting. Contractors also installed new hot-water radiators, added insulation to the attic, replaced the roof and gymnasium floor, and completely renovated the restrooms, floors and exterior façade of the building.
Galloway said water intrusion and inadequate heating had been major concerns at the school. Extreme cold resulted in several closings each winter.
In recent years, school administrators were forced to shut down up to two weeks every January and February to protect children and teachers from the bitter conditions, according to Zana Tropoja-Peja, the Foreign Military Financing and Humanitarian-Assistance Program manager for U.S. Embassy Pristina’s Office of Defense Cooperation.
“It would mainly function with reduced working hours in the winter season,” she said, “and even when the students were attending regularly, they would need to wear jackets and gloves inside the classrooms.”
The school also had dozens of ungrounded, open electrical sockets throughout classrooms and the building that posed significant safety risks, Galloway said. Tripping hazards also existed because of cracked stairs and walkways, the byproduct of water damage.
“That’s common for the buildings we renovate in the Balkans. All those things were corrected in this renovation. It reset the building’s clock,” he said.
“The contractor did a really good job complying with our safety requirements. This was [Lesna’s] first Corps of Engineers project. They totally transformed that building. Their performance on quality as a first-time USACE contractor was impressive.”
Officials say the upgraded, modern insulation will lower heating and cooling costs by dramatically improving energy efficiency, building protection and occupant comfort levels.
Kosovo is the youngest nation in Europe with a massive youth bulge, said Lt. Col. Bruce Murphy, chief of U.S. Embassy Pristina’s Office of Defense Cooperation. According to some estimates, more than 70 percent of the population is under age 35 – and it continues to grow.
The Ministry of Education has focused on building new schools to meet the growing demand, which leaves only minimal funding to renovate aging facilities that are decades old, Murphy added.
“This focus on new construction leaves a void that ODC has attempted to assist in addressing via focused renovation projects of existing schools,” he said, noting that four more are being targeted in fiscal year 2015 in conjunction with the ministry. “We also coordinate with the municipal education leaders to get their support and assurances that our renovated facilities will have adequate maintenance and upkeep budgets so the donation is a good and lasting investment.”
Children were relocated to two nearby schools during the Musa Hoti project. Officials said close cooperation was essential in making this renovation a success – from EUCOM, ODC, USACE and Lesna to school administrators, local and municipal government authorities.
“The team worked together to complete the project in time to dedicate the facility for the new school year,” Murphy said. “This was key.”
Musa Hoti was a follow-up venture to a U.S. Agency for International Development project that brought a six-classroom annex to the school several years ago, EUCOM officials said.
Galloway said the modernized school brings many advantages the students and faculty didn’t have before and benefits the whole Mitrovica community.
“We took it from essentially a condemned building that was still in operation – with very substandard conditions for the students and teachers – and turned it into a very functional school that’s going to last for the next 25 to 50 years,” he said. “We’re very happy, and we’re happy to be a partner with EUCOM and the embassy and being able to deliver these projects for them.”