LOWER TOWNSHIP — The school bell that first tolled in 1888 and last rang regularly in 1926 is sounding again at the Fishing Creek School, and officials expect schoolchildren to be back in the building some time this year.

“That’s the best part of the whole thing,” said Deputy Mayor Norris Clark as he pulled on a rope and rang the bell atop the 1888 one-room schoolhouse. “It’s a low-tech innovation to get you to school on time.”

Clark, who along with Mayor Mike Beck spearheaded the project to restore the school, said the state just awarded a $233,000 grant to finish the work. The money from the state Department of Community Affairs will be used along with private donations to make the building accessible to the handicapped and add modern restrooms, although there is still a two-seat outhouse in the backyard that the students once used. Money will also go to interior work, including removing lead-based paint, and exterior work such as adding parking.

The township paid for a new cedar shake roof, and recent donations from Anne Salvatore for a flagpole and Janet Pitts for restoration of the bell tower and outhouse are supplementing public funding. A number of local businesses, led by Domino’s Pizza and Gaiss’ Meat Market, also have helped the effort.

Clark said he expects the building to open for public and school uses sometime this year.

“It’s been a combination of private support and public funding that is putting us over the finish line,” Clark said.

It’s been a slow process since the state Green Acres Program purchased the school, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2002 from a private owner and then leased it to the township. Several early efforts to restore the school failed, but in 2009 Clark and Beck formed Friends of the Fishing Creek School and there has been steady progress since. The exterior is finished with a new roof and fresh paint, lighting to highlight the building at night, and new brick walkways.

Lower Township School District Superintendent George Drozdowski and former Superintendent Joe Cirrinicione toured the building last week. Cirrinicione noted that children who live in the Villas, the modern name for Fishing Creek, can walk here after school for homework activities.

Drozdowski said it would be used mostly for after-school activities, but also for early childhood education. Cirrinicione said they may use the building for families with 3-year-olds for a program to prepare children for school.

Clark said the new name is the Fishing Creek School Community Center. He plans on constructing a gazebo and white picket fence on the oversized 1.3-acre lot for concerts, and sees it as a possible township welcome center and key stop on the Bayshore Heritage Trail.

“It represents the connection between the school and the community. This is where citizenship begins,” Clark said.

The last Cape May County one-room schoolhouse still standing at its original location was constructed in 1888 by Civil War veterans to educate students in what was then a sleepy fishing and farming community. A real estate developer later changed the name of Fishing Creek to Wildwood Villas, which was later shortened to Villas.

Each community in the township had a one-room schoolhouse at the time, but the advent of motorized buses helped close them down in 1926, when students were bused to the Consolidated School on Seashore Road.

“It was the school bus that killed it,” Clark said.

The school was used as a summer home until Green Acres purchased it in 2002. It still has the original wood floors, tin ceiling and slate chalkboards. The two-seat girls’ outhouse sits in the back. They are trying to locate the boys’ outhouse, which was reportedly moved somewhere nearby, so it can be returned to the site and restored.

“It will be a reminder of how far we’ve come,” Clark joked.

Clark said the grant will be used to build a 55-square-foot annex with modern restrooms and wheelchair access.

“It doesn’t take away from the one-room schoolhouse. We have to restore to Department of Interior standards,” Clark said.

Concerts held outside last summer were successful, and more than 500 people visited during the Lower Township Chamber of Commerce’s Hospitality Night.

“We gave the kids a chance to ring the bell and I was surprised how excited they were. The kids love ringing the bell,” Clark said.

Contact Richard Degener: