By Alex Kline
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– When you talk to principal Kristy Heffner about the upcoming Penn Elementary expansion, you can almost hear a sigh of relief.
“This is an awesome plan,” Heffner expressed about the recently approved design plans for the school’s 23,000 square foot addition. “We’re really excited about it.”
The Iowa City Community School District Board of Education approved the plan at their Dec. 17 meeting. The over $9.3 million project is slated to begin construction in the spring of 2014 according to the district’s 10- year facilities master plan.
The North Liberty City Council also approved the site plan for the school’s addition to be built on the eastern, rear side of the current building, at their Dec. 10 meeting.
At nearly half the size of the existing school, the extension includes eight new classrooms, a new, larger gymnasium, a new media center, and general upgrades to the 50 year-old building.
“The building wasn’t built for 500 students, and yet the reality is that we are going to have at least 500 students for any time in the near future,” said Heffner. “So, it’s not just having enough classrooms, but it’s also having space for the things that make a school community and that make school really effective.”
With so many students occupying Penn, Heffner said that finding space in the 42,000 square foot building for everyone and school activities can be a challenge.
“Every space is fully used all day long,” Heffner said. “There’s lots of set up and tear down, and set up and tear down, and clean up and set up.”
Such limited space has some spaces in the school being used as much as possible. For example, Heffner said the cafeteria, also known as the community room, isn’t just reserved for lunch, but is also occupied for before school programs, breakfast, physical education, music and after school programs.
“We just don’t have any extra space,” Heffner said.
This renovation will not only make organizing classroom schedules more flexible, it will also afford room for the whole student body to gather.
“We don’t have anywhere except outside that our entire student body can be together,” explained Heffner. “The biggest thing is space, having those extra spaces be available to have room for small group reading and large group activities.”
In the long-term, the renovation will also permit the school to dispose of the six temporary buildings that currently house the entire second grade and one class from the fifth and sixth grades.
Heffner said that while the portables have worked in the meantime, the temporary buildings are not ideal for the long-term.
“There are always complications for having the students out in the portable buildings,” she explained, and added that in addition to moving kids around the property, weather and noise were huge issues with having the temporaries. “It’s the moving in and out.”
The Iowa City school district’s facilities master plan also calls for the construction of a new elementary school to be built by 2019 outside of North Liberty. This construction, along with the many other slated projects, most likely will require Penn to utilize in the meantime to control student overflow said Heffner.
“Until (North Elementary) is built and the boundaries are reconfigured it could be that we’ll need to use those modular buildings again,” Heffner said.
Regardless of the challenges North Liberty schools will face with coming district projects, Heffner said that it feels right to finally have long-term, viable answers to school capacity issues.
“We’re so happy to have the long range plan,” said Heffner. “Because it means that we know there is an end in sight. We have a plan for taking care of all the students.”
While the majority of the costs lie in the construction of the new wing, Penn will also receive some much needed facility upgrades. Air conditioning throughout the building, new windows, new doors, and new flooring are among some of the comforts and amenities needed to create a more sustainable building.
“It’s not extravagant,” said Heffner. “It’s just kind of the upkeep that needs to be done.”
Heffner added that the comfort improvements to the school would make for a more successful learning environment.
“Something I’m really excited about I think is in general the sense that our learning environment will be improved for all students,” she said.
The overhaul of the school will not only elevate some of the strains caused by limited space, but will also be able to accommodate the growing population of North Liberty and the Iowa City community school district.
“We’re all expecting growth in the next several years,” said Heffner of enrollment projections.
Bids for the project could come as early as March. The project is expected be finish construction by Fall 2015. With such a short timeline there are many decisions and plans to be made on how to stage construction so that it is as conducive as possible to the education of Penn elementary students.
“We have some details to figure out about that, how to minimize the distractions of having construction going on,” said Heffner. “I feel pretty confident that we will be able to handle it.”