NORTH CENTER — Bell Elementary's gleaming $10 million addition has been open to students and staff for the last three weeks, but it wasn't until Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, held Monday in the school's new multipurpose room, that the project was officially declared complete.
The project provides a "high-quality environment for high-quality education," Emanuel said.
Paid for entirely with state money, the addition features a new science lab, music room and art room, as well as a two-story multipurpose room that can be converted from a cafeteria/lunch room into a secondary gymnasium.
"I'm glad we took steps in Springfield to provide the money," state Senate President John Cullerton said.
Ellen Rosenfeld, a member of Bell's Local School Council and mother of four Bell students — from kindergarten to eighth grade — said that before the project kids had to eat lunch in the hallway.
"The kindergartner will only ever know this school," she said of the upgrades. "The eighth-grader thinks it's too fancy now."
Rosenfeld is one of a group of parents who began lobbying for more space and reduced class size as far back as 2007. Since 2002, Bell's enrollment has jumped from 650 students to 1,000 as the school's reputation attracted an increasing number of families with young children to the neighborhood, bounded by Irving Park Road, Addison Street, Damen Avenue and the Chicago River.
"Everybody's looking out for each other's kids," she said of the tight-knit community. "It's like this parachute where you know you can't fail."
With that success came a clear downside, parents said.
"It was sort of obvious there was an overcrowding issue here," said Michael Wilkinson, father of two Bell students — an eighth-grader and a recent graduate.
"The teachers were great, but they needed a better facility," he said. "Typical of what most CPS schools are saddled with, they had to put specialty classes" like science and art "in rooms that are 100 years old."
He and wife Michelle Sakayan are both architects, and the couple drew up a preliminary conceptual plan for an addition as a way of "advocating for a chance to get something done," he said.
Emanuel recalled a memorable "L" ride when "I was trying to blend into the crowd" and wound up being cornered by Wilkinson.
Most riders will either ignore him or ask for a selfie, the mayor said, but Wilkinson took the opportunity to campaign for Bell.
"It's a testament to your passion, not just as an architect, but as a parent," the mayor said to Wilkinson.
Bell's new addition also frees up space in the existing school, where further renovations are under way to give other classes room to breathe.
The school's special education program — Bell, 3730 N. Oakley Ave., was founded in 1917 specifically to educate deaf and hearing students in a shared environment — had been particularly cramped, Principal Sandra Caudill said.
The addition was "meant to allow us to have our special ed students in more appropriate spaces," she said.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who's made the development of a K-12 neighborhood school system the primary goal of his office, called the addition a win not just for Bell, but "a big deal for our community."
A meeting in 2012, held at The Rail, brought together the key players who would eventually persuade the Board of Education to allocate state funds toward Bell, Pawar said.
"I'm thrilled," he said as he soaked in the multipurpose room's new-car smell. "This is amazing."
For parents like Wilkinson and Sakayan, Monday's celebration was bittersweet.
On the one hand, the opening of the addition represents the culmination of years of effort. On the other, their eighth-grader will scarcely have the chance to benefit from and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
"We're happy for the future kids of Bell," Sakayan said. "The school's still part of your life even if your kid isn't there."