Locust Elementary in Marengo modernized in summer renovations

A new innovation center was the main part of the project

Students at Locust Elementary School in Marengo returned to school this fall to a building with a modern feel following major renovations throughout the summer.

The cornerstone of the project was newly constructed innovation center in what was the school’s courtyard. The building also received upgrades to the front entrance, a central air conditioning system and new furniture in classrooms.

Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch said she’s been planning the project for five years and is excited with how it turned out.

“It doesn’t feel like a 1960s addition anymore. It really looks good,” she said during a tour of the renovations with school board members Tuesday.

The full project was set to cost the district $2.2 million, Damisch said, and will finish $2,310 over budget. The project was largely paid for by the district’s general revenue fund, but some federal COVID-19 relief dollars were used for the school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades.

The main piece of the project is a new innovation center in what once was a courtyard space in the center of the school.

“This will be where our library is, it hooks right to our computer labs, and then eventually we’re going to have robotic components,” Damisch said.

Outside the school, renovations were done at the front entrance to create a green space and add a flag pole and school bell. New windows and doors were added for energy efficiency.

“It’s a totally different front of the school. It really turned it from a 1970s building to something a little more modern,” Damisch said.

In the classrooms, new furniture was purchased and redesigned to fit the needs of new teachers.

“My theory is when I put in a classroom, I put all the cabinets and storage in the back. Young teachers don’t use desks, they don’t use file cabinets because they do everything electronically,” Damisch said.

Some classrooms were impacted by the construction of the innovation center and lost their windows to the outside. New windows near the ceiling keep the room’s design looking outward and letting light into the room from another source, Damisch said.

The cafeteria also was upgraded to be a more comfortable environment for the students, Damisch said. The ceiling was kept elevated to help with room’s noise level during lunch periods and new tables were bought. Like other rooms, the focus was on drawing attention to the outside, which in the cafeteria meant placing ceiling tiles in a way that points toward the windows.

Other improvements throughout the building include new ceiling tiles and new floors. The school also will be completely air conditioned in the summer for the first time.

“I’m very excited that the board and community members can be at the local school and enjoy this beautiful space,” Locust Principal Suellen Lopez said.

Damisch said some additional projects still need to be finished over time. Workers will continue to install new floor tiles, add furniture to the innovation center in November and begin renovations in December to convert the old media center into new classrooms.

“Everybody was so respectful,” Damisch said of her district’s building team. “They all worked with each other. It never would’ve happened if people didn’t work with each other. In August, you still wouldn’t have thought we’d open up school.”

The renovations were not without their hiccups, Damisch said. Summer storms knocked out brand new light fixtures shortly after they were installed and shipping issues caused delays.

“I think the supply chain got us. It took us two extra weeks for the ceiling tiles because they just couldn’t get the materials,” Damisch said.

Thanks to extra work by her staff, including on weekends, Damisch said, they were able to stay on track to bring students back to the elementary school by the first day of school in August.

Damisch said she has enjoyed the project and having an opportunity to make improvements to improve the educational experience for students and make the school more modern.

“It was like watching ‘Fixer Upper.’ I could’ve been like Joanna Gaines,” she said.