The past two years have been a whirlwind for Ty Arendall—but a fun one. He was still serving as principal at Vestavia Hills Elementary Liberty Park when he was named principal of the new Vestavia Hills Elementary Dolly Ridge, but he was often at the new school, which is right near his house, making plans and preparations for the 18 months leading up to the opening this August. This summer alone, a 14-classroom addition and a parking and traffic loop were added to the building. We caught up with him just after his visit to see the fifth graders at Camp McDowell to hear about what the new school is like. “It feels completely like a Vestavia school, it just has its own flavor to it,” he says.

How did Dolly Ridge come to be?

When the school system went through strategic planning five years ago, we had an aging building at Central that couldn’t become a K-5 school, and we realized it’s not good to have different alignments, some K-5 and some K-3 or 4-5. We decided all the schools should have K-5 alignment. This campus is 27 acres right in the middle of Vestavia Hills and was a Jefferson County school, Gresham Elementary. I drove past it for seven years from my house in Countrywood. The board decided to purchase the property and leased it back to the county before it became a new K-5 school this year.

Where did the teachers come from?

Most of our K-3 teachers came from East and West, and the grades 4-5 teachers came from Central along with most of the office, lunchroom and special areas like PE and music. It’s been fun for them to be with the K-3 students now. There were such excellent teachers at all the schools. When parents saw the teachers who were coming here, they were like, “Oh this is going to be good!”

What was the feel like on the first day?

There was tons of excitement. We had such limited time to be ready for that first day, but after a week it felt like we had been having school here a long time. This summer it was more than we could handle, and we called volunteers from churches and the Dolly Ridge Dads to help us. I don’t know any other community who could have made that happen. 

What was one challenge particular to this school?

People told me you can’t run a carpool line here with no room to stack. We use bar codes and scan car tags, and then they go into a computer. The kids are in the gym and see their name, number and picture, and then they go to that cone. By the second day we were 20 minutes faster, and today we are finished by 10 ‘til 3 p.m. Now Cherokee Bend Elementary was here observing our system.

What traditions are you starting at Dolly Ridge?

I wondered if we’d be able to pull off a carnival in October, but it was clear it was important culturally. We made RidgeFest our own and used our new field, and it was on the first cool night of the fall. Our fundraiser raised $97,000, which tells the community everybody has bought in. Last Friday we got a big grill, and Billie Williams our maintenance guy and I grilled hot dogs and hamburgers in the courtyard for the teachers and we had a tailgate.

Now that the dust has cleared, we can work on a motto and school-wide recognition. The character of the school emerges, and you don’t know what the personality is going to be. That’s all the fun stuff that will make us unique.