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Extreme Makeover, School Edition


How an empty building will become a thriving academic community It takes a certain amount of vision to look at a neglected building and see a high school bustling with 600 students, but Chicago International leaders saw just that in December 2005 when they purchased the structure at 80th and Honore that will serve as the permanent home for Chicago International Charter School’s Ralph Ellison campus beginning this August. Once an elementary school, the 37,000-square-foot building had been vacant for 10 years when CICS bought it. Birds made their home in the roof; asbestos plagued the walls and air ducts; the structure was falling apart. The first thing leaders decided to do was hire an owner’s rep, a building professional who could serve as a liaison between school officials and the contractors. “I recommend it strongly,” says Dr. Thresa Nelson, CEO of Civitas, the education management organization (EMO) that runs Ellison’s daily operations. Nelson, who previously served as COO of Chicago International, managed the construction project from its infancy. “For us, the owner’s rep was invaluable.” Together with the architect, builder, and owner’s rep, CICS leaders set to work re-envisioning the space. “We could have done everything conservatively, but we really wanted to have a high school these students and this community would be proud of,” Dr. Nelson says. “We wanted all of the enriching spaces: science labs, music and art rooms, a library, common areas.” In December 2006, the renovations began with abatement of hazardous materials, and by April of last year, the city had issued the building permits. A month later, the builders began excavating for the new regulation-size gymnasium (with seating for about 200 spectators) and an addition of roughly 21,000 square feet, which includes administrative offices, the cafeteria, art and music rooms, the library, and science labs. Of the $15 million budget, roughly $4 million went to the gym, $4 million to the addition, and $7 million to the renovation of the existing building, Dr. Nelson says. Transforming an elementary school into a building suitable for high school students took some creative thinking. For example, in every classroom, the pint-sized coat closets had to be demolished and rebuilt to fit bigger coats. And Dr. Nelson is especially pleased by the solution for the hallways: “Instead of putting lockers along the halls and making them more narrow, we have clusters of lockers at the ends of the corridors,” she explains. “It’s a wonderful set-up.”


Dr. Nelson seems pleased by the building’s overall design, which meshes the former building with its new components and makes good use of glass and light. “The exterior of the old building is visible in the interior,” she says. “When you go from the new section to the old, you don’t notice; there’s a cohesiveness that works beautifully.” But her favorite part of the renovated space is the quotation etched in the glass front of the new addition. Taken from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it speaks not just to architecture and design, but also—most importantly—to the learning that will happen in this building for decades to come:

I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality; gives birth to my form. FocalPoint



Extreme Makeover, School Edition  

How a building becomes transformed into a school.