It’s a scene not often witnessed in a Weehawken schoolyard. Instead of children playing and laughing in the courtyard at Webster School, there’s a two-ton pile of dirt that stands about 30 feet high. There’s a pay loader and other construction equipment standing prominently in place. Plus, there’s a gigantic hole in the back, going some 20 feet deep.
The scene at Webster School is just a reminder of the extensive renovations and construction going on in all three schools as part of the district’s $10 million upgrade approved by voters a year ago.
The Weehawken Board of Education is taking advantage of a one-time program from the state Department of Education, receiving close to $4 million to make improvements such as bringing each building to reach codes set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, equipping schools with handicapped ramps, exits and elevators.
In turn, the district asked voters to float a bond for the remaining $6 million to complete the other improvements, like renovating the high school gymnasium, which has already been completed, the auditorium and culinary arts lab, and putting in new windows in all three schools and a classroom extension at Webster School.
Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan has tried to insure that the educational process goes on without a glitch while the major renovations are underway.
“All of our crews usually start after 3:30 p.m., when the kids have gone home for the day,” McLellan said. “And they work through the night. Any work that was extremely noisy was done during the Christmas holidays and other work will be done during Easter break. Are there some inconveniences? Sure, there are. But we’re minimizing them as much as possible.”
Right now, some of the most extensive interior work is being done in the high school auditorium. All of the 500-plus seats have been removed, seats that were there when the facility first opened about 75 years ago. They were refurbished once about 25 years ago, but now, the time has come to totally replace them.
“We’re getting all brand new seats,” said Weehawken Principal Dr. Peter Olivieri. “We’re hoping to have the entire auditorium completed by May, to be ready for our annual play.”
Not only does the auditorium’s facelift include brand new seating, there will eventually be air conditioning, new stage rigging and a new sound system.
Air conditioning was vital for the auditorium, because graduation ceremonies that have been held there in the past have been brutally warm with little relief.
While the auditorium has been out of commission, Olivieri said the school’s drama classes have been moved to a regular classroom and other meetings that were usually held in the auditorium have also been moved.
Olivieri said that another heavily used room in the high school, namely the media center, will also receive some upgrades, like air conditioning and new, faster computers.
“Our students will be able to research material faster and easier,” Olivieri said. “We have so many activities going on in that room.”
The culinary arts area is also out of commission right now, so all of the school’s cooking classes have been canceled for this semester.
“But when it’s done, it will be like a working kitchen in a restaurant,” Olivieri said. “It’s going to be outstanding. Right now, no one is happy while the work is going on. But once everything is completed, we’ll be overjoyed.”
McLellan said the work in the kitchen will enable the school to offer a full culinary arts program, which is not offered in most high schools.
The work at Webster School, where students in pre-kindergarten through third grade attend, seems to be the most extensive, especially from the exterior.
But Webster Principal Tony D’Angelo said there has been very little interruption of school services from the construction.
“We had a minor disruption in our food service and in the kitchen area, but that has been taken care of,” D’Angelo said. “The work that is being done will be for the classroom extension and the elevator shaft.”
When the work is completed, the school’s kindergarten classes will be held in the extension that is being built.
“In the spring and summer, we’ll have the bathrooms redone and the gym will be refurbished in the summer,” D’Angelo said. “The only problem we’ll have will be in the spring, when our gym classes will not be able to use the school yard. But other than that, we’ll be fine.”
The improvements to Webster will also include a new roof, new windows and new playground equipment.
At Roosevelt, an elevator is also being constructed, and complete renovations to the bathroom facilities are being done. Many of the classrooms are being painted, as well as the hallways, and windows are being changed from plastic to glass, in order to gain more natural light.
McLellan believes the entire renovation and restoration project could be completed by August.
“That’s what we’re shooting for,” McLellan said. “When everything is done, we will have top-flight classroom facilities and will have everything up to code.”