CHESTER - Walking through the halls of Allison Elementary School in Chester, it's easy to be distracted by the sounds of children going to lunch or changing classes.
But as the sounds ebb, what's left is more than empty hallways.
Those hallways now gleam with the brightness of new lights, new ceilings, new flooring and new paint. The K-4 school, built in 1963 and expanded in 1983, does not look or feel like a 50-year-old building.
NEW LOOK — Kindergarten teacher Melissa Bane reads a book to Allison Elementary School students on Friday. Her classroom, adjacent to the new pre-kindergarten wing, has new lighting, flooring and ceilings thanks to a $5.3 million renovation project funded by Hancock County voters. Most of the work was done after school hours. -- Stephen Huba
MESSY SITUATION — Allison Elementary School Principal Toni Hartung has had to contend with construction equipment all year long. Formerly a teacher and assistant principal at the Chester school, Hartung became principal at the beginning of the school year with the retirement of longtime Principal Linda Robinson. -- Stephen Huba
Workers are putting the finishing touches on a $5.3 million renovation project that has enhanced the school's safety and security features, added a gymnasium and three pre-kindergarten classrooms, and improved the overall learning environment, Principal Toni Hartung said.
"Everybody's been on board with this. It's a family here," Hartung said.
Construction work began last June, so the school's 440 students and 31 faculty members knew that the 2012-13 school year would be a momentous one.
"At the beginning of the year, (Superintendent) Suzan Smith met with us and said, 'This is going to be a year of adjustment,'" Hartung said. "But the construction has not hindered us. Seeing the progress makes everyone happy."
Now that the school year and renovation project are winding down, Hartung said the importance of the improvements is starting to sink in.
"The biggest difference will be when we have our gym periods. We'll also have more room for assemblies and award ceremonies," she said.
Previously, the school had no dedicated space for physical education classes, so the cafeteria doubled as the gymnasium. School staff had to tear down the tables and chairs twice a day, Hartung said, to make room for gym periods. That won't be necessary now that the school has a new gymnasium.
The other addition is a pre-K wing with three new classrooms, complete with removable carpet squares, Smart Boards, and pint-sized toilet fixtures. Hartung beams whenever she shows visitors the rooms.
"I love them. They are so nice," she said.
The spacious pre-K rooms will help bring Hancock County Schools into compliance with new state standards for universal pre-kindergarten. Universal pre-K, formalized by the West Virginia Legislature in 2002, means state schools must offer the program to 4-year-olds whose parents want them to attend.
"There cannot be a waiting list. All families who desire a space in the universal pre-K system must be accommodated," according to a summary of the policy posted on the West Virginia Department of Education's website.
Among the other big changes at Allison, Hartung said, are the improvements to safety and security - in the form of more sprinklers, more video cameras and redesigned entrances. The latter, including the new pre-K entrance, now feature video cameras and a buzzer system for visitors.
The main entrance has a redesigned "man trap" - a set of exterior doors followed by a foyer and locked interior doors - whereby visitors cannot enter the school without first pressing an access button and signing into the office. Hartung and the office secretary are authorized to admit visitors.
Hartung said the importance of student safety was reinforced for her after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in December.
"I was relieved that we had already started the process of improving security," she said. "Academics and keeping our kids safe are our number one priority."
Other improvements to Allison include new heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems, all new security windows and doors, restroom upgrades, landscaping, data wiring and electrical upgrades, and new sidewalks.
The renovation project is being funded by the $37 million bond levy approved by Hancock County voters in 2010. A project of similar scope, part of the fourth bid package resulting from the bond call, is being done at New Manchester Elementary School.
The Allison project is about four months ahead of schedule and should be done by the end of the month, said Ron Blatt, project manager for Project and Construction Services Inc. of Wheeling. The New Manchester project is on schedule and should be done by August, he said.
"We're very pleased with the work out of (Allison general contractor) Jarvis, Downing & Emch Inc., out of Wheeling," Blatt said, noting that most of the work was done after school hours. "They were able to work efficiently."
Architect for the Allison project was McKinley & Associates of Wheeling.
With the start of spring, among the most anticipated improvements are the new playgrounds - one for pre-K students and one for K-4 students, Hartung said. Once the equipment is installed, all that remains is landscaping, she said.
"The kids are excited. They can't wait to get out there," Hartung said with a smile. She paused, then said, "I can't wait for them to get out there."
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)