When third-graders at Mount Pleasant Elementary School 'graduate' to intermediate school on June 7, they and their families will celebrate the event in an assembly room whose completion was expedited to make sure it was ready on time.

"We felt we owned them that as a gift for the way they put up with construction all year," said John Read, who is managing the Brandywine School District's renovation and modernization program.

The new room is a rebirth of the former auditorium in the 72-year-old building on Duncan Road near Bellefonte. The auditorium was virtually sealed off for the past 20 years after being heavily damaged in two arson fires. In a sense, that was symbolic of a building which had been seeking a constructive use at the time.

About a third of it has since been leased to the Edgemoor Community Center and Sellers Senior

Center, which actually put up an addition. Another third was reopened several years ago as an elementary school.

Read said it was decided when drawing up the plans for renovation that a traditional auditorium, like the one put there for use by a junior-senior high school, would not be as functional as an all-purpose assembly area. As now configured, it is a large room with a platform stage at one end, which can seat between 200 and 300 people, depending upon whether it is set up with chairs and tables or just chairs.

In addition to serving the school, the room gives the district a large facility to accommodate teacher training sessions and other activities "no one has gotten around to thinking of yet," he said. It also will be available for community use.

That is not the only change associated with the Mount Pleasant Elementary renovation. In fact, the entire project was revamped when planners had second thoughts about what started out as a limited renovation.

The original idea was to reopen the auditorium and replace the heating-ventilation-air conditioning system and roof and let it go at that. "When we got into it, we realized that it needed a lot more -- a complete renovation. We had to rescope the entire project," Read said.

Mount Pleasant Elementary operated this academic year in a near-normal mode despite extensive renovations to the large building.

Nevertheless, he added, some tight budgeting and foregoing some unessential elements -- such as putting in a new sidewalk -- enabled "us to stick to the original budget." It totals $12 million. Some of the things that have been skipped can later be financed as minor capital expenditures in the district's regular budget, he said.

There was more than ample justification for doing far more than originally intended, he explained. The building, for instance, had only one elevator and, as a result of the building's multi-level layout, did not provide handicapped-access to the cafeteria.

The layout, he said, produced all sorts of challenges. Constructed in 1931, there were additions in the 1940s and 1950s and another in 1971. In all cases it appears that the new areas were simply appended to older ones. As a result, the building has "all kinds of nocks and crannies, twists and turns" including bricked-up former exterior windows inside and a stairway which actually goes nowhere except up to the ceiling.

"It's like an archeological dig where you uncover an old city layer by layer," Read said. "This building is a maze. Some times you feel like you have to leave a trail of bread crumbs to find your way back."

The biggest challenge, though, was integrating construction with operating an elementary school in as close to a normal mode as possible. It originally had been planned to do the partial renovation during the 2003 and 2004 summer recesses. Instead, workers had to be on the job from 4 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. during the school year. Bancroft Construction is construction manager.

For the most part, Read said, the two very different activities flowed reasonably harmoniously along parallel courses, staying out of each other's way. The workers made sure they cleaned up and made safe areas through which the children had to pass. The ultimate joint venture was successfully installing an elevator shaft just outside a cafeteria which the students used daily.

"Everyone was great about putting up with the inconveniences," he said. "Most of the kids loved it -- because they got to see [the construction] as it went along."

The ultimate irony in doing it that way lies in the fact that Mount Pleasant Elementary previously shared it building -- which is large enough to accommodate 1,000 students -- over the course of three academic years, when part of it served as a 'holding school' for Chichester, River Road and Maple Lane Elementary Schools while those buildings were being renovated. The schools -- with enrollments smaller than 500 students each -- operated separately, but shared common facilities, such as the cafeteria and gymnasium. During the coming year, Forwood Elementary will be there and Lombardy Elementary is scheduled to follow in the 2005-06 year.

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