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May 17, 2007

Falk School expansion planned

Pitt’s Falk Laboratory School will break ground this summer on a $13 million expansion project that will more than double the size of the 75-year-old building, alleviate traffic congestion and, over time, allow a 50 percent increase in student enrollment.

School director Wendell McConnaha, with the help of former directors and selected students, will turn the ceremonial shovels at 1 p.m. Sunday as part of the school’s 75th anniversary celebration and annual carnival.

School expansion and remodeling options already were being assessed when McConnaha arrived on campus in 2005, bringing with him experience in planning and overseeing school construction and remodeling projects in such far-flung places as Nebraska and Nigeria.

The selected project will increase the school’s existing classroom space of less than 19,000 square feet to more than 41,000 square feet and will increase the gross square footage of the entire building from about 28,000 square feet to more than 65,000 square feet.

The new building is designed for 408 students, but will have the capacity to hold 432, McConnaha said. Current enrollment is 272.

The new school will be able to accommodate six primary classrooms (kindergarten through grade 2), six intermediate classrooms (grades 3-5) and nine middle school classes (grades 6-8).

Also included in the plan is a new bus drop-off area and an extended car drop-off area to ease traffic flow between the school and the neighboring Veterans Administration Hospital, located across Allequippa Street.

Plans call for the existing teachers center building next to the school to be razed and the playground relocated. The new addition will sit to the north of the existing gym.

While work is scheduled to begin after classes at Falk end in mid-June, some details have yet to be worked out.

McConnaha said the costs of two alternatives still are being weighed. In one scenario, students would be moved into a temporary swing space off-site, allowing both renovation and new construction to occur simultaneously. Under that option, students would be scheduled to return to the new structure in December 2008.

A second option would be to remain in the current building and some on-site temporary space while the addition is constructed, then move into the new portion while the original building is renovated. Construction time under that scenario is estimated at about 24 months, he said.

McConnaha said work to be done once students finish the current school year will include the demolition of the teachers center, site preparation, utility work and asbestos removal in the building. Footings could be dug in September if all goes according to schedule, he estimated.

“We’ve done a marvelous job of administering a program for the 21st century in a building constructed in 1931,” he said, adding that the expansion has been a long time coming. Some historic research found that a plan to expand the school in the early 1940s was thwarted by World War II, when the school lost many of its teachers to the draft or the war effort and instead scaled back its student body, McConnaha said.

Now that the time finally has arrived, McConnaha sees several big pluses in the school’s future.

The new building will be equipped with elevators and be handicapped-accessible, he said. Some areas in the current building remain inaccessible to wheelchair users.

The larger building will help reduce perennially large waiting lists. “We can add significantly to the number of children we serve,” he said.

In addition, having a larger lab school will increase opportunities for research. The current student population at Falk is too small for some studies, forcing researchers to conduct their work off campus, he said.

Plans call for an additional section to be added to each primary level. The lone kindergarten section will become two; three mixed-grade classrooms for grades 1 and 2 will become four.

The existing two sections for grades 3 and 4 will increase to three as will the existing two sections for grades 4 and 5.

The biggest addition would be in middle school, McConnaha said.

Middle school, where students rotate from class to class, currently accommodates two sections of 16 students in each grade. A third section eventually will be added to each middle school level in grades 6, 7 and 8.

“We won’t go out and add all these kids the same year,” McConnaha said. Rather, students will be funneled in at the logical popular entry points of kindergarten, and grades 3 and 6, with growth phased in over four years as students advance.

In the first year, plans are to add a second kindergarten, and additional sections in the grade 3 and 4 mixed classroom and grade 6.

The addition of new sections of 22 students each will increase revenues and more than pay for themselves, McConnaha said. Increased tuition revenues will more than offset the costs of adding a teacher for each new section, he said.

Current tuition, excluding fees, is $8,705. Annual tuition increases, which already have been projected through 2012, range from 2.9 to 3.1 percent — essentially equivalent to increases in the cost of living, McConnaha said.

The University essentially will serve as the mortgage holder for the project. An upfront loan to Falk will be paid back over 30 years, McConnaha said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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