Thursday marked a new beginning for W.A. Johnson School in Bensenville, as it started its school year with almost twice as many students.
Johnson combined with Mohawk School and the schools now operate as one entity out of an expanded and fully renovated Johnson School. The school consists of about 620 students from kindergarten through fifth-grade.
The new Johnson is part of Bensenville Elementary District 2's larger project to consolidate four elementary schools into two. The project will be completed before the 2014-15 school year, when Tioga School and Chippewa School are combined into the new Tioga School.
For second-grade teacher Jean Walsh, it was a bittersweet leaving Mohawk for the last time after 33 years teaching there.
"There were times we'd come into Mohawk and the power wasn't working or the heat wasn't working or I had water in my class," Walsh said. "Emotionally, (Mohawk) will always be my home.
"But this was the right move to make. These kids are so lucky, I don't even think they get how lucky they are."
With the renovations complete, one cannot tell the difference between the old portion of the building and the new.
The school is now triple its original size and has a new cafeteria, gym, library and 18 new classrooms -- in addition to the 18 renovated classrooms. There is also a new outdoor area and a playground, as well as community room offices and a learning center.
Technology has been upgraded, and wireless Internet is available throughout the building. Co-Principal Jason Smith said Johnson has hundreds of iPads that kids can check out and plans to have Chrombook laptops available for every fifth-grader in the near future.
"With the building we have, the kids are getting something that their community isn't used to having," Smith said. "On every level this is the most beautiful building I've ever worked in."
Talks of renovation began in 2010. The expansion and renovation of Johnson cost $25 million, with money coming from an array of federal, state and local funds. The Tioga renovation cost $22 million with the final phase costing an additional $11 million.
The expansion and renovation of Johnson was complete by November. After winter break last year, Johnson moved into the new portion of the building while Mohawk moved into the old. The two schools operated separately through the spring, despite being in the same building.
Thursday was the first time Johnson and Mohawk students were able to identify themselves as one, unified school.
"Our main focus was starting the idea off that it is one school," Smith said. "We had two faculties, two sets of ways of doing things. Now we're one school with one focus and one mission."
"It was very easy for the kids to combine," added PTA President Kiki DeLuna, whose daughter Isabel is a second-grader at Johnson. "It was harder for the parents. I think the parents had these ideas that 'We're Johnson,' and 'We're Mohawk.' The parents were a bigger hurdle to overcome than the kids.
"My daughter sees it as, 'I have more kids to play with.'"