By Bob Skolnik
Last year, Ames School fifth-grade teacher Amy Seymour worked in a windowless classroom. This year Seymour is teaching in a modern, bright, airy and spacious classroom bathed in natural light from a row of four tall north-facing windows.
"This is a serious upgrade," Seymour said after teaching in her classroom for the first time on Sept. 2. "Walking in here was like walking into a different world. It feels very different than the old part of the school."
Seymour's new classroom is part of an 18,000-square-foot $10 million addition to Ames School completed with not a second to spare.
As schools in Riverside Elementary District 96 opened last week, a few finishing touches were still being buffed, including adding permeable pavers to the parking lot. The work went down to the wire.
District 96 didn't receive an occupancy permit for the Ames School addition and its other elementary schools, which underwent smaller construction projects, until 10 p.m. on Sept. 1.
"It was a complex project," said Ramesh Nair, who oversaw the construction projects at all of the elementary schools for Riverside District 96.
The project has transformed Ames School. The two-story addition has a bright, open, airy look and feels very different than the more traditional older part of the school which was built in 1924 and added onto in 1988.
The addition supplied two new large classrooms, an early learners wing with three classrooms that now houses the district's pre-kindergarten program, a new library, a multipurpose room where lunch can be served, two learning hubs, a sensory room, a speech pathologist office, a room for English language learning classes and remodeled or new art and music rooms, as well as a brand new playground.
"I love the new addition to Ames," said Ames Principal Todd Gierman in an email. "These spaces were designed with 21st century learners in mind, and are very inviting to students."
Gierman said that in addition to the bright natural light that now floods the library, the area also has a maker space to accommodate STEAM classes as well as a separate, open learning space.
"The open feel to the library is fantastic for our students," Gierman said.
The new multipurpose room will not only serve in the future as a lunch room, it can also be used as a learning space for larger groups of students across multiple grade levels, Gierman said.
Desks in the new classrooms also function as white boards, meaning that students can write on the desks and then wipe them clean. The new classrooms also have built in cabinetry that also functions as white boards, built-in bookshelves and dimmable lights. Cubbies for student belongings are located in classrooms rather than out in the hallway.
"Everything is just built into the design, which I think is very thoughtful of the architects," Seymour said.
Art teacher Elizabeth King was impressed with the new art room, which was built where a fourth-grade classroom once stood.
"I'm just very impressed overall, from the planning to the execution, with what they've been able to do with the space," King said. "I think the students are going to love being in this environment where it's really bright and happy, colorful."
Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the new playground will be off limits to students for now.
The district obtained the space for the addition and new outdoor space by buying and demolishing two homes that had stood on either side of the school.
The early childhood classrooms all have separate individual doors to the outside. The early childhood wing also has a separate drive-up entrance on the west side of the building, allowing the youngest children to be kept apart from older students. The separate entrance also allows for easy pickup and drop-off.
Smaller changes were made at the other three elementary schools in the district. Central School got a new multipurpose room in the area that once housed the school district's administrative offices.
The new multipurpose room means Central students will not have to go to the Hauser cafeteria for lunch. Central School also got an elevator.
At Blythe Park School, the office was moved across the hall adjacent to a new secure entrance and small addition that holds two classrooms. At Hollywood School the office was moved to be closer to the entrance to enhance security.
The district did not have to borrow any money for any of the other construction work this year. All the work combined cost about approximately $16.25 million, which the district paid for using its cash reserves.
"Our buildings are transformed," said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye.