NORTH CENTER — In the past 10 years, enrollment at Bell Elementary School has jumped from 650 students to 1,000.
With the school bursting at the seams, parents began advocating for reduced class size as far back as 2007.
"We never thought we'd get an addition," said Jessica Ekern, a parent representative on Bell's Local School Council. "We thought we'd get trailers."
Instead of trailers, the Public Building Commission (PBC) unveiled plans for a proposed two-story annex, presented at a community meeting held Thursday night in the school's auditorium. The design reflects feedback gathered at a previous forum.
"We heard everything you guys were saying," said Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th), whose office helped secure $10 million in state capital funding for the project. "We made sure the design reflected what the Bell community is looking for."
The annex will be added to the south wall of the existing Bell structure, located at 3730 N. Oakley Ave., which opened in 1917. Its primary components include dedicated rooms for science, music and art, allowing Bell to reclaim classroom space. The school will also now have a full cooking kitchen, as opposed to warming meals shipped from elsewhere.
A high-ceilinged two-story multipurpose room will function largely as the school's cafeteria (termed "dining room" and "servery" by PBC) but can be converted into a gym or event space. This represents a significant change from the initial design, where a lower ceiling and pillars limited the space's use.
"It wasn't truly multipurpose to the extent we need," said Bell Principal Sandra Caudill. "We need extra gym space."
The new plan addresses those concerns. "This allows us a lot of flexibility," said Caudill.
Because the annex will have its own separate entrance, it can be opened to the public for community meetings or athletics without having to secure the entire building.
"[The multipurpose space] is really exciting for this ward," Caudill said.
Bells and whistles in the annex include a kiln for art classes, occupancy light sensors and a partially green roof. The design, developed by the architecture firm SMNG-A, takes advantage of natural light as much as possible, in part because daylight has been shown to increase student alertness, but also for energy efficiency.
"Thirty percent of a building's energy is spent on lighting," said Todd Niemiec, the "N" in SMNG-A.
Along with construction of the annex, PBC has planned significant renovations to the current building, including moving the school's library into the former lunchroom, doubling the library's size.
The annex and renovations are intended to accommodate Bell's current student population, not another enrollment explosion, Caudill and Pawar said.
Though there is room for modest growth, "its purpose is not to extend our [attendance] boundaries or programs," said Caudill.
Pawar added that his office is limiting condo development within Bell's area, nixing proposals for 3-bedroom+ units, to prevent further stress on the school's resources.
In terms of a construction timeline, Erin Lavin Cabonargi, PBC's executive director, stated that the project would go out to bid in November and ground would be broken in spring 2013. The annex is expected to open in January 2014, with post-occupancy renovations continuing for another month.
"We'll be out of your hair around February 2014," she promised, adding that she's shepherded 40 school projects in the past three and a half years. "Every single one on time and under budget."
PBC will update construction progress via its website on a page devoted to the Bell project, as well as a Twitter feed for Bell — @PBCChi #Bell.