ROCK FALLS – Kindergartners and first-graders slurped on piping-hot chicken noodle soup and chomped on bright-orange baby carrots in the new cafeteria at Dillon Elementary School this week.
Meanwhile, older students twirled hula hoops around their waists in the old gym across the hall.
Up until just a few weeks ago, neither would be possible – at least not at the same time – because the gym doubled as the cafeteria.
In the mornings, students from all three district schools ate breakfast in there. In the afternoons, over 2.5 hours, nearly 400 students ate lunch in shifts in there. Whenever the gym was in use for mealtime, physical education classes were moved to classrooms, hallways or the outdoors, if possible.
Principal Brody Rude said the new addition – the separation of the gym and the cafeteria – has allowed the school to reduce lunchtime to less than 2 hours and increase physical education time by about 30 percent. He said it also has freed up time and space for one-on-one counseling and intervention for at-risk students.
"The response has been great," he said.
First-grader Remington Collins, 6, loves the bright, sunny cafeteria. She said the new space is much nicer than the dark, fluorescent-lit gym.
"I like it," she said. "I really like where we get our hot lunch now; I couldn't reach it [the serving line] as good."
The project was more than just the addition of a cafeteria.
First, the cafeteria was designed as a multipurpose room – a space not only for serving and eating breakfast and lunch during school, but also for meetings and special events after school.
The room includes electrical outlets, data ports, and projection equipment. It also has access to bathrooms and drinking fountains and prevents visitors from roaming the halls.
Also, the addition included a new front entrance, main office and principal's office.
The space is protected by a security system. Visitors must press a buzzer to gain access to the building, and a secretary must verify their identity via camera to let them in. Visitors previously walked into the doors and had to walk down the hall to the office, if they didn't head straight to a classroom.
The project originally was slated to cost between $500,000 and $700,000. But the bid came in at more than $950,000.
Superintendent Dan Arickx said the project originally was just for a cafeteria/multipurpose room. He said the district and the school board tacked on some additional work, including the front entrance, as well as some concrete repair elsewhere in the district, which raised the cost.
The district paid for the project with working cash bonds and reserve funds.
Arickx said the addition was overdue.
"It means a lot [to the district]," he said. "We want to provide the best services we can ... and this expands opportunities, not just with physical education but ... with the overall learning experience."
Construction started in early September and wrapped up in mid-March, only a few weeks behind schedule.