There was an added level of excitement to the first days of school for students at Downers Grove North and South high schools as the multiyear building renovations and enhancements are complete.
“Facility wise, we are one of the top facilities in the Chicagoland area,” Community High School District 99 Superintendent Hank Thiele said. “This year, students want to be back and to come back to a new space and be a part of the new, exciting experiences.”
In August, crews completed the final projects of the multiyear master plan for renovations culminating with the opening of the new learning commons at both schools. The learning commons features areas for students to study independently, work in small groups and meet with school support staff. It is modeled after something one would see in a college setting.
To enable the students to use the learning commons, their schedules were modified to increase the lunch break from 22 minutes to 50 minutes. Students are responsible for how they use their time, Thiele said.
“They can decide how to use their time to eat, work on school assignments or see school staff,” Thiele said. “All the resources students need are now available in one area: counselors, social works, activity directors, athletic directors, administrators. In addition, the library and nurse is also available.”
Thiele said the freedom to study, meet with staff or meet with peers will help District 99 students prepare for their post-high school experiences, whether that is in college or at work.
To build the new space, former courtyard space was converted into the learning commons.
The commons are a final piece in the multiyear renovations that school board members began planning in 2013. The district brought the plans and a referendum request to finance the work at both schools in 2018, and voters supported the measure to issue $136 million in bonds to fund the work.
The scope of the work has included air conditioning, new secure entrances, new culinary arts classrooms and new science classrooms at both schools. At Downers Grove South, the work included a second turf field for class and athletic use. A new gymnasium was added at Downers Grove North.
This year, a new, larger curtain will rise at the new Downers Grove South auditorium that can seat 1,200, the same as Downers Grove North. There also is a new theater classroom, scene shop and a studio theater that can be used for smaller productions.
“We had a functional space before but limited,” said Nathaniel Haywood, one of Downers Grove South’s drama sponsors. “This space is a vast improvement in a lot of ways. We’re really excited to get to use it.”
Haywood said it’s been difficult after a year of limitations because of the COVID-19 pandemic but everyone is excited to return to work and the aim is to bring back the eight productions this school year with an announcement in the coming days regarding the shows.