Students in Bensenville Elementary District 2 got a sneak peek at their new digs earlier this week, but it didn't detract from their sense of wonder Wednesday morning when they returned for the first day of classes.
Entering additions at Tioga and Johnson schools, they marveled at the size and amenities of their upgraded classrooms, enjoyed sunny hallways and, in some cases, even worried about finding their way around.
"I'm going to get lost, there's no doubt about it," Lilly Sweeny, 10, a Tioga School fifth-grader, said.
After about 15 months of construction, major additions were completed at both schools as part of District 2's plan to merge its four schools into two.
Tioga was combined with nearby Chippewa School and now houses roughly 700 students. The Chippewa building is empty and the new, $21.8 million Tioga addition includes 30 classrooms, including specially designed prekindergarten classrooms, music and art rooms, a gym and a learning center.
Students are divided between the new addition and the original Tioga building, connected by a hallway. But all students will use the new gym, computer lab and learning center, while using the old gym for lunch.
"It's a very big difference and we are very excited," Tioga fifth-grade teacher Kristen Levato said. "There's a lot more technology in the building. At parent-teacher night, kids kept saying 'This is so great, this is so cool.' And we can't help but agree."
Tioga is also slated for a $9.7 million third wing and cafeteria funded in part by an Illinois capital development grant. Construction should begin next year. Ultimately, the old Tioga building will be demolished.
At Johnson, the $24.8 million addition features 22 classrooms, including music and art rooms, a gym, cafeteria and learning center. About 350 students arrived to start classes at Johnson.
When renovation work is complete later this year, students and staff from Mohawk School will move in, bringing the total enrollment near 700.
There is still work being done on Johnson's learning center and renovations to the existing building, but officials said all construction areas are safely separated from students with plywood barriers.
At Tioga, meanwhile, glass display cases still must be filled, painters continue work on a bridge, and several gleaming hallways still need finishing touches.
"It's like having a new house," district spokeswoman Terry Ryan said. "Everything is fresh and new but there's still work to be done."
Officials said both school additions were designed to allow room for collaboration in "interaction space" between each pair of classrooms, a commons area in each group of classes and an innovation lab with room for flexible groups as well as computers and other mobile technology.
Both additions were paid for by a combination of low-interest bonds that will be paid back from the general district's fund over 25 years, district fund reserves, O'Hare Modernization Plan funds, and a portion of an $8.2 million state grant from the Capital Development Board.
Currently, the Mohawk property and building is for sale. And the old Chippewa building eventually will be demolished and become the site of new athletic fields for District 2, officials said.