The latest recess craze at Sandburg Elementary School has nothing to do with dodging balls or skipping rope.

Ever since a new gym and classroom addition started going up, some kids have discovered it’s just as fun to watch the aerial work of the construction crew, said Principal Brett Wilfrid.

The project, which addresses a crowding situation that became untenable, was approved by Madison School District voters in April as part of a $41 million referendum.

Residents are getting a first look at what they purchased, with projects underway at six schools. Ultimately, the money will fund construction and renovation projects at 17 schools.

Eighty-two percent of voters approved the extra spending.

Wilfrid said he finds the level of support particularly heartening because the money reinvests in long-established schools, as opposed to building a school in a developing neighborhood, which sometimes can be an easier sell. Many of the schools getting upgrades serve increasingly low-income, high-needs student populations.

“I feel that voters really reaffirmed their commitment to providing a quality education for all students,” Wilfrid said. “And oh man, words can’t really express our gratitude. We feel the love.”

The school is on the city’s Far East Side, in a neighborhood not far from the Dane County Regional Airport.

The six schools in this first phase were chosen because they have the most pressing enrollment needs, said Mike Barry, assistant superintendent for business services. Sandburg illustrates those challenges.

The school’s library houses two classrooms, and storage areas have been converted into instructional space. Students eat lunch at their desks because the cafeteria is needed for other purposes.

“We call it Prairie Dog Village here, because we’re all on top of each other,” Wilfrid said.

The $3.1 million being spent at Sandburg is mostly for new construction, including a new gym and eight classrooms. The project also will double the amount of bathroom space, improving restroom access for students with disabilities in the process.

The work is scheduled to be done by the end of February. In the meantime, staff members and students are embracing the process, Wilfrid said. For this year’s Halloween dance sponsored by the parent-teacher organization, he dressed as a construction worker.

Other schools are taking a similarly positive approach, turning a potential distraction into teachable moments. Some classrooms are taking a photo every day of the construction as it progresses. Teachers are assigning construction-related writing assignments and inviting workers to speak to their students.

The other five schools where work is underway:

Van Hise Elementary and Hamilton Middle schools:

  • The two schools share a campus and are getting a new centralized library, with a retractable wall that will divide the space for younger and older students. Space currently used for library activities will become seven classrooms. Remodeling will add space for student services, including a centralized health office. $3 million

Hawthorne Elementary School:

  • New construction is adding a gym and a total of four art and music classrooms. $2.8 million

Midvale Elementary School:

  • A new cafeteria and multi-purpose room is being added, with the current cafeteria being turned into four classrooms. A three-level elevator is being added. $2.9 million

Huegel Elementary School:

  • The bulk of the referendum money for this school will go for new ceiling tiles, paint and lighting for classrooms in the older part of the building, as well as infrastructure upgrades such as new boilers. Also, the school’s library is being remodeled. $1.5 million

Work on the remaining projects is scheduled to begin in the spring. That includes $7.4 million in remodeling at Jefferson Middle School — the single most expensive project in the referendum — and a highly anticipated renovation of the East High School theater.

Most of the 17 referendum projects are expected to be completed by the start of classes next fall. The projects at East and Jefferson are among the exceptions due to their scope.

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