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When classes resumed on Sept. 6 after a whirlwind three-month, $15 million construction campaign at three Riverside District 96 schools this summer, teachers had to be forgiven if they were still getting used to things.
As one teacher guided her students through a hallway at Ames School last Friday, she abruptly had her charges make a U-turn. The place where she was headed had been relocated.
That's not surprising. Lots of places have been relocated inside Ames and Central and Hauser schools since classes recessed last June. At Ames, the school office, along with the school nurse, copy room and a conference room, has been moved from its spot in the middle of the first floor to an area right near the front door.
The library, now a little smaller, has been moved to the area where the school office used to be. Art and music rooms have been moved to a location near the gymnasium, and the school's lunchroom, which used to be up on the second floor, has been moved to the first. The old lunch room space was converted into two fifth-grade classrooms and a science exploratory room.
Oh, and all three buildings are now air conditioned. Ask teachers what change they really appreciate and air conditioning is at or very near the top of the list.
"I love the air conditioning," said Amy Wright, a fifth-grade teacher at Ames School, "the difference just working in there. I get grumpy when I get hot, and nobody wants a grumpy teacher."
While the air conditioning is appreciated, what is really striking when you walk through the halls of the renovated schools is that while the structures retain their vintage exteriors, they are 21st century on the inside.
The buildings have completely new mechanical infrastructure - plumbing, electric and technology. A new district-wide phone system has been installed and there are, for the first time, phones in each classroom.
At Ames, ceilings have been raised and the hallways brightened. Lights are controlled by motion detectors and individual rooms have climate controls, so unused rooms aren't burning up energy. There are also three new security cameras inside Ames, something that hadn't been there before. They monitor the entrance and main hallway on the first floor.
Chalkboards have been replaced by white boards and each classroom has wireless Internet service, and an interactive projector that can be plugged into a teacher's computer, DVD player or other device. The projector then throws the images onto the white board, which also serves as a projection screen. And it's easy to hear audio because all classrooms have ceiling-mounted speakers.
Teachers no longer have to deal with keeping bulky overhead projectors and computer carts in their rooms.
"It looks like a 21st-century building; it looks cleaner and modern," said Ames fifth-grade teacher Chris Harvalis. "Before, the classrooms were just cluttered. It allows more space for learning."
The same kinds of changes appear at Central School and Hauser Junior High. The improvements could not have come sooner at Hauser, which saw its enrollment spike this year from 520 students in 2011-12 to almost 600 students.
There are now five more classrooms at Hauser this year because of the changes, which included creating what's been termed a "bump-out," wedged between the back of the Hauser auditorium and Central School.
That bump-out now houses the choir program and could be used for two additional classroom spaces in the future - for either Central School or Hauser Junior High if the need arises.
"It will provide lots of flexibility," said Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson.
According to Lamberson, both projects - at Ames and at the Central/Hauser campus - came in under budget and more or less on time.
The total budget for this phase of the D96 renovation campaign - Hollywood and Blythe Park schools will get their makeovers next summer - was $19.3 million. As of last Friday, the district had spent about $14.9 million.
Part of the reason for that, said Lamberson, is that there were many bidders for the work. More than 100 people showed up for the pre-bid meeting at Hauser Junior High last winter, and there weren't lots of alternate bid specifications to deal with. The district also put its project out to bid in January before many school projects go out for bid, Lamberson said.
The district also had the money for the project in the bank. It had issued construction bonds and was funding the rest through its cash reserves. The work didn't depend on the success of a referendum, which might have otherwise scared away some bidders.
"The timing was great," said Lamberson, "so there was lots of competition."
And while the project was largely complete when school opened on Sept. 6, there were some unexpected detours during the renovation at both campuses.
It took a week and a half longer to remove all of the asbestos at Central and Hauser, said Lamberson, because old abandoned pipe chaseways were loaded with the material. When all of the asbestos was removed, said Lamberson, it could have filled the Hauser auditorium 17 feet deep.
"Central was an asbestos nightmare," said Lamberson.
But while Central School was the oldest building in the district and expected to yield some surprises, there was not a single structural issue found, said Lamberson.
The same can't be said for Ames School.
Workers ran into two serious structural problems that sent them scurrying from the area when the demolition began. One concerned the interior stairway near the entrance of the building. At some point, probably during a renovation of the building in the 1960s, someone removed a support for the stairwell. That was replaced.
And when asbestos-removal crews were demolishing the old school nurse's area, bricks from a huge chimney started falling down near them. At some point in the past, someone made the decision to cut out 10 feet of wall holding up the chimney. Bricks held together only by decades-old mortar were suspended in the air. That chimney has now been shored up by steel beams.
And then there's the gymnasium floor at Ames. The gym still won't be usable for another couple of weeks, said Lamberson, because renovation of the gym floor took longer than expected.
When workers removed the old floor, which was heaving in places, they discovered there was no sub-floor. The wood gym floor rested on stone aggregate, which had shifted over time.
That floor now has been leveled and replaced with concrete, over which a new wood floor has been placed. As of Friday, however, the floor hadn't been striped or sealcoated.
Even with those setbacks, Ames was largely finished by mid-August and Central and Hauser opened on Sept. 6, fully operational, said Lamberson.
Renovations at Blythe Park and Hollywood schools are not expected to be as extensive. Blythe Park School, for one, has no asbestos to abate and the district decided to abate the asbestos in four rooms at Hollywood School this summer.
"I think it's going to be a very different kind of project to manage and oversee," said Lamberson. "The most challenging issues are behind us."