School upgrades 'a long time coming,' District 21 officials say
It's been almost three weeks since Wheeling Elementary District 21 students returned to classes, and with a little late summer push of heat and humidity, school staff and students have welcomed the air conditioning that's flowed for the first time in most schools.
School officials also like the assurances of beefed-up security that was installed at all 13 school entrances over the course of 10 weeks this summer.
Those projects, which cost about $37 million, cover the bulk of $69 million in capital projects authorized by voters in through a November 2018 referendum.
As students and teachers settle in for a new academic year -- albeit later than normal because of all the construction work -- district leaders already are making plans for the next major project once classes let out in June: outfitting about 30 classrooms across six elementary schools for full-day kindergarten.
"It's been a long time coming," school board President Phil Pritzker said of the projects during a recent ribbon cutting at Hawthorne Early Childhood School in Wheeling. "The stars have aligned financially and physically to make it a reality."
Air conditioning was turned on for the first time at nine District 21 schools; the three district middle schools and Walt Whitman Elementary already had it. Along with a related update to HVAC systems, workers installed 236 unit ventilators -- from which cool air passes through vents -- in classrooms throughout the district.
The security upgrades included renovations to school entrances to create additional checkpoints before a visitor is allowed inside. Before, some schools only had one such checkpoint, where a school secretary would buzz visitors into the building after speaking to them on intercom.
Now, secretaries use an audio and video system to communicate with visitors who are buzzed into a secure vestibule. There, guests present IDs to be scanned and run through a national database of registered sex offenders.
Once approved, visitors can walk into the main school office and receive a temporary visitor badge.
None of the security upgrades required construction of building additions, but some entrances, like at Hawthorne, look completely different.
"It was a brick wall and no windows in the office," said Superintendent Michael Connolly, recalling his first visit to the Wheeling-based district preschool upon his hiring in 2018.
"Where was the front entrance? I wasn't entirely certain where to go in."
The upgraded security work also included installation of more cameras.
Next summer, the district plans to renovate classrooms at six elementary schools to equip them for daylong kindergarten programs.
Currently, those schools host 2½-hour morning or afternoon sessions, while three other schools -- Whitman, Field and Twain -- have full-day instruction because they receive federal Title I funding.
The school board already has signaled its support of expanding kindergarten, and recently reviewed preliminary designs of what new classrooms would look like. But a formal vote to direct the administration to move forward with specific plans is expected next month.
The district plans to spend $3.2 million next summer on retrofitting the classrooms, renovating bathrooms and installing new furniture for current full-day kindergarten classrooms. At the same time, there's almost $2 million in referendum projects planned for a new canopy at Holmes Middle School, mechanical equipment at three schools, and security lights outside buildings.
The following two summers, officials plan to spend what's left of the referendum money on more LED lighting upgrades and newer classroom furniture, in addition to paving, roofing, plumbing and flooring.