By Bob Uphues
With a little more than a month remaining before classes resume for the students of Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95, workers are busy wrapping up construction at the district's two schools.
And when students arrive that first day, they won't recognize the place.
"When I have an opportunity to just walk around and look at the physical spaces that are new, it is almost jaw-dropping how beautiful the spaces are, how bright, how conducive to learning they're going to be," said Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski during a tour of the buildings last week. "You're just looking at some state-of-the art spaces."
Community residents will get a chance to see what their newly increased taxes went to construct later next month.
Work is a bit further along at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield than it is at Brook Park School in LaGrange Park, where a new K-2 wing and full-size gymnasium were built from the ground up.
Everything, however, is on schedule to be complete by late August.
Ribbon-cutting/open house events have been planned for Aug. 20 at S.E. Gross Middle School and for Aug. 22 at Brook Park School. The times will be announced later, but likely will be in the evening.
The construction project has been funded through two separate bond issues – $20 million in construction bonds approved by voters in 2017 and $15 million in bonds funded through district operations.
According to Kuzniewski, the final project cost is expected to be right around $34,850,000. However, district officials were able to widen the scope of work last winter, after initial construction bids came in about $1 million under estimates. In addition, the school district did not spend any of the roughly $1.4 million that had been set aside for design contingencies, Kuzniewski said.
That allowed the school board to approve installing air-conditioning throughout both Brook Park and S.E. Gross schools, including the older areas not originally slated for it. As of last week, air-conditioning units had been installed throughout both buildings. The systems were expected to be operational by Aug. 18.
Adding air-conditioning throughout both buildings was a roughly $1.5 million line item, said Kuzniewski.
The favorable construction bids also have allowed the district to install 75-inch Viewsonic video displays inside each classroom of both schools, eliminating the need for document cameras, overhead projectors and exposed wiring.
In grades kindergarten through two, the displays will be fully interactive touchscreens that allow teachers the freedom to move around the classroom and allow students to cast their work onto the board, as well as move elements on the screen itself by touching them.
In the higher grades, the displays won't be touchscreens, but will still allow teachers mobility and students the ability to cast their work onto the display to allow peer review of work.
"It is our hope that it will allow teachers to get to a higher level of use of technology," said Kuzniewski. "
At both schools the new gymnasiums are large enough to allow all-school assemblies. In addition to being equipped with state-of-the art sound systems and video screens, both gyms come with 777 seats, not bleachers, that can be pulled out from a wall.
The Brook Park gym also includes a large stage, which can be used for events like S.E. Gross School's annual show. School district officials' original plans to create a combination cafeteria/auditorium space at S.E. Gross School were dropped when the cost to make that happen became unrealistic, said Kuzniewski.
But the new cafeteria at S.E. Gross School is a huge improvement over the former room, which was able to accommodate about 120 students. The new cafeteria can hold 200 students and will include a variety of seating options, from stools to booths to pub-style tables.
There's also permanent, temperature-controlled serving stations and large areas for food prep and storage. A side entrance allows deliveries to be made directly to the cafeteria, eliminating delivery trips through the school itself.
The old cafeteria has been divided into two spaces. One will house a special education early childhood program provided by LADSE. The adjoining space will be used as a recreation area for those children and for children in District 95's early childhood program, the classroom for which is across a newly refurbished outdoor courtyard.
Brook Park School will also house an early childhood program for District 95 students.
Also nearing completion at S.E. Gross School are the second-floor music and art areas, which are flooded by natural light. The band area includes a large rehearsal area with acoustic tiles suspended from the ceiling, which is two stories from the floor. There are also two private practice rooms.
The art area includes plenty of project storage, suspended power cords, sinks and a kiln room.
Above the art/band area is the new STEM lab, which is divided into two areas – one used for activities like computer coding, robotics programming and activities like soldering.
The other area, where projects created next door will be manufactured, will house two CNC routers and equipment for 3D printing.
"We think that will be a showcase spot for other school districts through the entire state, and maybe even country, looking to add STEM, particularly if they can build spaces from scratch," Kuzniewski said.
Brook Park School's new K-2 wing will have its own entrance off Raymond Avenue, while grades 3-5 will enter off a new door facing the playground north of 30th Street. The new two-story addition houses six new 1,000-square-foot kindergarten rooms (the old rooms measured about 650 square feet) on the first floor and 12 classroom for grades one and two above.
"I think the thing that jumps out is the size of the kindergarten classrooms and the space that they will have," Kuzniewski said. "Once the new furniture is in those spaces, what I anticipate is another jaw drop.
"We've had carpeting and some little chairs from 1940, and now we have this movable, flexible type of seating that we've never had."
Kuzinewski said that administrators are working with teachers "to prepare them for what instruction looks like in those settings."
Skylights flood the bright second-floor hallways with natural light, while LED lights have been installed in the older part of the building to brighten things up there. The old gym is getting a new wood floor and the bleachers there have been removed and will not be replaced, allowing more room for recreation.
As of last week, said Kuzniewski, there were nearly 120 students enrolled in the new full-day kindergarten program (up about 15 or so students from last year). The new gym will allow Brook Park kindergartners to attend gym class every day of the week.
The new addition also houses new art and music rooms as well as rooms for small-group instruction.
Work on the new playground continues this week with the installation of a new poured-in-place rubber surface. The play equipment has already been installed. The roughly $258,000 playground was made possible by a fundraising effort by the Brook Park Council parent organization, which raised nearly $150,000.
Lastly, the modular classroom units, which have sat outside at the campus' north end for the past four years have been packed up and are ready to be moved later this month. The units had provided space for six classrooms at a total cost to the district over the four-year period of about $775,000.
This story has been changed to correct the date of the Brook Park School open house.