CEDAR FALLS — The music blared Friday morning as students shot baskets, played volleyball, jumped on trampolines and did other activities in Orchard Hill Elementary School’s new gym.
Since Wednesday, when students and staff began using part of the school’s new addition, physical education classes have been a bit of a celebration. Students were free to get whatever balls or other sporting equipment they wanted to use.
“I’m really letting them explore,” said PE teacher Kris Whitcher, noting the wide-open doors on the equipment room. “Look at my storage, it’s just amazing.”
Physical education classes in Orchard Hill’s old combined gym, cafeteria and auditorium got even more cramped than they always had been when construction started on the addition in the fall of 2017. All the gym equipment was moved into the room, reducing available space during class.
“I thought I was excited, but the kids,” said Whitcher. The first time students saw the new gym “they cheered, they clapped, (they gave) double thumbs up.”
The 36,418-square-foot addition at the north end of the school on Rownd Street also included an adjacent cafeteria and kitchen, main entrance, school offices, vocal and instrumental music rooms, and the fifth- and sixth-grade classroom wing. There are two new small group rooms off of a new hallway, as well.
The music and grade level classrooms are not yet finished. Work on them is expected to be completed by spring break, which is the week of March 18. Currently, all those classes are held in three portable buildings at the school.
In the meantime, remodeling is expected to get underway in areas of the existing building that have been vacated with the addition opening. The entire $10.68 million project should be finished by next fall.
Principal Andrea Christopher said she loves the addition and how the improvements equalize the school’s facilities with all new and remodeled elementaries in the Cedar Falls Community School District.
“It feels so good that it doesn’t matter what part of town you live in,” she said. “I think the facility does make a difference in terms of energy and learning. I want to thank Cedar Falls for making this possible.”
One example of those improvements is the individual areas dedicated to the gym, cafeteria and kitchen. All are adjacent, with the gym and cafeteria separated by a divider. A portion of the cafeteria doubles as a stage for concerts and other presentations with the audience located in the gym space.
“It’ll be the first time ever that we can have our concerts over here at Orchard Hill,” said Christopher. In recent years, concerts have been held at the high school because Orchard Hill’s facilities couldn’t handle all students and parents plus parking for everyone.
“This is the first time, also, we’ve ever had our secretaries in one room,” she added. The front office is much more spacious than the former location.
Along with the reception area, there is a conference room and a teacher’s lounge that is much larger than before. The principal and the nurse’s offices have also grown in size.
The nurse’s office includes two beds separated by privacy curtains and even has a bathroom. “I think my whole office fit into that bathroom,” said health assistant Sarah Byerly, in the previous location.
One-time Orchard Hill student Andrea Kucera helped to design the project. The senior interior designer with the ISG architectural firm in Waterloo said the old office area and cafeteria/gym were unchanged from when she started kindergarten at the school 32 years ago.
“It’s been a huge transition and quite a fun project to work on, since I have that tie to the school,” she said.
Kucera noted that green and blue in the addition’s color scheme tie it to the existing building — including some touches on the exterior. Having “Orchard” in the school’s name served as an inspiration, as well, with the green representing a tree’s leaves and blue for the sky above. Those are the colors of comfortable furniture and wall panels at the “heart” of the school, a gathering space through which various wings of the school can be accessed.
Kucera also pointed to “a modern take on a tree motif” in the design of the office’s reception desk and the media center’s counter, largely accomplished through color and texture. Additionally, trees and clouds are suggested by metal grids that hang down from some ceilings and contain light panels.
“I feel like we have an amazing designer and construction crew,” said Christopher, praising the Waterloo company that built the addition. “Peters Construction has been so accommodating. It all went really, really well.”