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School renovation is a lesson in patience

The 12-year renovation of Crystal River Middle School will near its end when Building 100 is torn down and rebuilt in 2003.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


CRYSTAL RIVER -- When David Hickey first took over the reins as principal at Crystal River Middle School in 1990, he knew the aging school needed some serious help.

Small classrooms, a tiny media center, a leaky gymnasium with a ruined floor and a cafeteria so small that six different lunch periods had to be scheduled were keeping the school from reaching its full potential.

One wing of classrooms was "a maze" and the media center "was dark and dank."

"It was quite evident that facilities needed to be a school goal," Hickey said. So Hickey and his team set to work deciding how to handle the problems.

"I thought the school at best was in disarray," Hickey said. "It is the oldest school in the county." The main building, which now serves as the administration office, was built in 1924.

"I had it all laid out, the full plan. But I sure didn't expect that it would take 12 years," Hickey said.

Hickey said he will be glad to see the renovations and construction that he started a dozen years ago finally draw to a close when the final piece of the puzzle -- demolition of the old Building 100 and construction of a new two-story building -- gets started sometime in late 2003.

Gina Hodges is also excited about seeing the project completed. She took over as principal when Hickey was elected superintendent in 2000.

The existing problems in Building 100 have provided Hodges with her own share of challenges. A leaky, flat roof has sent her maintenance crew running in all directions, using trash cans during the heavy rains to contain the water. Small classrooms, problems with the insulation and an air conditioner that needs replacing haven't helped matters.

"We are keeping our maintenance department very busy," Hodges said.

She knows starting the large construction project is going to bring a new series of concerns. But then that is pretty much the way things have gone for the past decade at Crystal River Middle.

The ongoing construction and renovation have prompted logistical challenges year after year as administrators struggled to find ways to house students, keep them out of harm's way from construction crews and still provide an education.

"The student flow had to change on a day-by-day basis, depending on where the shovel was in the ground that day," Hickey said. "I'm really sad that it took this long but things moved slowly."

The projects were built in phases and, especially with the renovations in the 1924 building, no plans existed, so crews were constantly running into problems. "Every time I put a shovel in the ground, I broke something," Hickey recalled.

Builders went bankrupt. County processes for choosing construction priorities changed. Money was tighter some years more than others. All those issues contributed to the delays, Hickey said.

The Building 100 project has seen its own share of delays. For months Hodges and her staff tried to devise the perfect remodeling plan. The classrooms in the wing are set up in pods that open into minor hallways. The small classes and configuration of pods don't work well for instruction or for supervision.

But expanding classrooms was not an option. The building was constructed in an odd way: Instead of having structural support in the roof, all the walls in the school are load-bearing and thus they cannot be moved.

"There is not a single window in any classroom," Hodges said. "It's pretty dreary."

Building 100 also has the only science lab in the school, contributing to what Hodges said is a poor science program. "We're not equipped facility-wise to do anything hands on," she said.

"This was all discussed over a period of months, sitting down and trying to work it out," Hodges said. "Then at one of the meetings I sat up and asked, "What are we doing?' At what point do we give up?"

By then the cost of remodeling had begun to climb and Hodges and other officials decided it was time to look at demolition and reconstruction. Building 100 does not have the historical significance of the two-story entrance building of the school. Building 100 was constructed in 1967 and was used as an elementary school, which explains the small classrooms, the pod configuration and the small size of the old cafeteria housed in that building.

The school's new cafeteria was built over the last couple of years and was opened during the 2001-02 school year.

The new county construction prioritizing process, which includes review from the Long Range Planning Committee, also kicked in during the past year.

Once Hodges got to present the idea of demolition and new construction to the committee, she had her approval and the $6-million it will take to accomplish the plan.

While that price tag may be about $1-million more than what renovations would have cost, Hodges said the many problems this new structure will solve more than make up for the cost.

Meetings on the schematic designs begin this week, but already Hodges and her staff have worked up rough floor plans for the new structure.

Her plan is to create a large science lab, ringed by science classrooms, on the first floor of the new building.

The discipline office, which is in a remote corner of Building 100, will be moved to a more centralized spot so that an administrator an get to any problem on campus more quickly.

Large classrooms will be upstairs and the configuration of the building will allow the school to add more parking spaces, a major issue at the school for some time.

A new student dropoff and pickup plan will also be possible when the new building is done and that is another troublesome issue which has plagued the school, Hodges said.

"We're so excited," she said. "It's needed. It's definitely needed."

Hodges is very high on her school and sees this final piece as simply adding the icing to the cake. "I think we have the most beautiful school. It just has such a good feeling," she said.

Hickey agreed.

"It's going to be beautiful when it's all done," Hickey said. "It is very important to me to have a learning environment that's conducive to learning."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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