That’s what teacher Jan Cline and her colleagues said when they reached the third floor of Broadwater Elementary Tuesday afternoon.
They were among the 100 or so parents, children and district staff who toured the renovations in progress at Broadwater and McKinley schools Tuesday.
A year from now, expansions and retrofits designed to bring the historic schools into the 21st century will be complete. But the groundwork has been laid this summer, and contractors and school officials were excited to show it off.
Much of the work so far has been to the schools’ guts — think HVAC systems and window replacements, SD2 bond project manager Lew Anderson told the groups assembled at each site.
Other improvements are in plain sight.
Cline, for instance, could see for the first time her classroom on the opposite end of the third floor at Broadwater. There, Hardy Construction crews have knocked out a small room dubbed “the cloffice” by school staff, yielding a spacious foyer instead of mazelike corridors.
“To see that gone made me kind of emotional,” Cline, a fifth grade teacher, said.
There’s much left to do at Broadwater. Concrete footings to the school’s east offer just an outline of the large expansion that’s to come and will provide space for the gymnasium, cafeteria and offices, according to principal Joe Halligan. Once that’s finished, the annex building to the west will be demolished.
“When you look in the classrooms, you’ll have to use your imagination,” Anderson told attendees at McKinley. Classrooms in both schools, for the most part, haven’t been touched yet.
All students will remain at Broadwater during the ongoing construction, though the work will make everything a bit more complicated next year, Halligan said.
A swath of the school grounds will be fenced off to students, and without the “cloffice,” Broadwater staff are down instructional space that was already in short supply. Halligan said Hardy Construction is installing a sort of “bull run” that will channel students from the busing area to a single school entrance.
“It is going to be a distraction; there’s no way around that,” project manager Cory Moore said.
Most of the interior finishes in place for this school year are temporary, construction managers noted.
“And then next year, we start all over again.” Steve Ewen, Hardy Construction project superintendent said.
At McKinley, the disruption is being navigated “gently,” SD2 School Leadership Support director Brenda Koch explained to a crowd gathered in the school’s first-floor foyer.
Classrooms are being converted into temporary gym and cafeteria spaces for K-2 students, while students in grades 3-5 will be relocated to the Lincoln Center for the year. The district will utilize partnerships with the Billings Public Library and the YMCA to get those students appropriate learning opportunities, Koch said.
The end result, though, will be a pair of schools that maintain their historic character while offering a more functional, comfortable learning environment, officials said.
Red steel doors to classrooms at Broadwater will be replaced with wood ones that match the century-old trim. Artwork on the walls of McKinley dating to the 1920s has been covered up until the renovation is complete, and presidential busts and a document signed by the school’s namesake himself were put in storage.
Classrooms will become temperature-controlled, an improvement welcomed by Cline, whose room often climbs to 90 degrees or more during the first few weeks of school — at least according to the vintage thermometer screwed into the trim, which read 86 degrees around 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Crews have unearthed new finds as they have worked inside the buildings, like skylights that have been long forgotten and covered up, Moore said.
And if the buildings already seem a little brighter, a little shinier, it’s because they are.
“We’ve really given the outside a facelift,” Moore said of Broadwater.
The exterior restoration at McKinley has been completed as well, which required brick-by-brick touch up and masonry work.
McKinley parent Meg Hatch was pleased with what she saw.
“You walk in there, and it just feels so open,” she said, pointing to large sections of classroom window that had been previously covered over.
“And, and the bathrooms,” she added.
Her daughter, soon to be in fifth grade, had grown accustomed to venturing down three flights of stairs to use the restroom. Both McKinley and Broadwater will soon have restrooms on every floor, and the basement is being overhauled.
Though the ill-equipped and undersized building, built in 1906, had been less than ideal for students, Hatch said, she’s ecstatic of the revitalization underway, even though her daughter will be in middle school by the time it’s completed.
“For this to be the oldest continuously used school building in town, to me that’s very important,” she said. “I have a lot invested in this place.”