KUCOVE, Albania – As a parent and educator, Vjollca Kllapi knows all about “28 Nentori.”
Her eldest son attended several years ago, and she once taught at the local nine-year school, which serves nearly 600 children ages 6-15. She also has a daughter about to enter the fourth grade here.
But Kllapi says she’s never seen it look quite like this.
“I am very, very satisfied with the improvements made to the school,” she said through a translator. “We feel that having the most optimal conditions within the school is a driving factor to improve the teaching and learning process as well. When the children see a beautiful learning environment and building like this, it will also motivate and inspire them to study harder.”
Kllapi was among several dozen parents, students and teachers who gathered June 11 to celebrate the reopening of “28 Nentori” following a $575,000 renovation aimed at providing a safe and more sustainable education facility for the area’s youth. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District managed the humanitarian-assistance project in support of U.S. Embassy Tirana’s Office of Defense Cooperation and U.S. European Command.
Built in 1964, the three-story school drastically deteriorated over the years and suffered from the cumulative effects of wear and tear on classrooms, lavatories, electrical and plumbing systems, and furniture. The 16,000-square-foot facility had never been fully refurbished.
“This is not just a building – it’s an investment in the future of Kucove and Albania,” said Navy Cmdr. Ralph Shield, the American Embassy’s defense attaché. “This school serves not only as a symbol of our friendship, but also a tangible part of continuing efforts to strengthen the bonds between us. It is my wish that this school educates the children of Kucove for many decades and produces the skilled, enlightened adults that will lead Albania in peace and prosperity as part of Europe and the world.”
The project featured a complete interior and exterior overhaul. Renovations were made to the electrical system and lighting, plumbing, bathrooms, windows, doors, rooftop, stairwells and walls. Workers also leveled and resurfaced the wood gymnasium flooring and ceramic tile floors throughout the school.
Europe District carried out the effort alongside its contractor, Cosmopolitan Inc., and lead subcontractor, Besa. They wrapped up most of the work by the end of March, but students remained at another nearby school to finish the academic year.
EUCOM officials praised the collaboration by U.S. and Albanian agencies, adding that ventures like this transcend physical labor and strengthen ties at the local and national levels.
“The Kucove school renovation provides an ideal platform for the U.S. government to partner with Albania and reinforce the importance of education and its impact on regional security and stability,” said Desmond Brooks, humanitarian-assistance program manager for EUCOM’s Engineering Division, Directorate of Logistics. “Such projects generate positive public [response] and reassure our partners of the U.S. commitment to peace and friendship.”
Artian Dautaj, the humanitarian-assistance program manager for the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Defense Cooperation, said coordination with the local municipality began in March 2011 and site work started about two years ago. The Kucove school became a priority because it supports building partner capacity and delivers essential infrastructure and services for the community, he added.
“This project will have a large impact on continuing to improve the U.S. image, not only in Kucove, but across Albania,” he said. “Also, it is significant because Kucove receives only limited funding from the central government in Tirana. … The project has created a safe and stimulating learning environment for students. This modernized school not only provides a much better standard of living but also exceeded the required standards by installing things like the fire exits and internal [public-address] system that the school didn't have before.”
The improvements will ultimately affect about 10,000 people in the Kucove area, Dautaj said.
“It will have a tremendous impact,” Mjaftoni Dhimitri, the school’s director, said through a translator. “Having this beautiful building and academic environment will lead to a higher quality of education and help the staff provide better teaching for the kids. Our children will be able to better prepare themselves for the future.”
“28 Nentori” is the largest school in Kucove, she added. Officials plan to use it as a community center during summer breaks, allowing public access to the gym and computer lab.
Doug Wesemann, a Europe District project engineer based in Germany, said he visited the site twice during construction.
“Each time, we were presented challenges, as we always see – things like user-requested changes, construction changes and variations to design,” he said. “Best results come from great team members within all stakeholders involved, which was definitely the case with this project. Arti with the country team deserves extensive credit. The contractor, along with its key sub Besa, was exceptional, and the end users were always grateful.”
Prior to completion, Wesemann turned the task over to Maj. Russell Destremps, also a USACE project engineer out of Germany. In February, Destremps conducted the final inspection and met with key officials and partners in Kucove.
“From the contractors and local municipality to the country team and our USACE team, all parties were fully dedicated to collaborating and delivering a quality project,” he said. “It was a well-delivered and coordinated effort that was well underway when I joined the team. … Each member was always focused on what they were able to contribute to finding constructive solutions as opposed to what limited them. The difference in the two may seem subtle, but the impact is immense.”
Dautaj said the partners acted professionally and had great chemistry, which was vital in bringing the project to reality.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers role in delivering a quality project was very important,” he added. “USACE was proactive in making sure to have the project completed on time, not to go over budget, and meet and exceed the end users' expectation.”
Now, it’s up to students, faculty and parents to preserve the fully revamped school and grounds at “28 Nentori” for future generations, Dhimitri said.
Kllapi, the mother and former teacher who’s seen so much here over the years, agrees.
“This is our duty and obligation to keep it nice and sustain this school,” she said. “I sincerely thank the U.S. government for this beautiful project given to our community. It’s a very modern facility. … We are very privileged to have a school like this in our town.”