Renovations brighten the Holland school

Almost $20 million in improvements to the John P. Holland Elementary School has transformed an old drab concrete building into an educators dream.

"I feel like I won the lottery," said Michelle O'Connell, principal of the Holland School.

The Olney Street school has been completely re-worked with new classrooms, parks, and a renovated pool. All of the building's exterior walls were knocked down and new clear windows were installed. In the old school the windows were painted over; now light pervades the interior of the building. The school was specially redesigned with the diminutive stature of elementary school students in mind. Windows that were once too high for students to see out of are now just off the floor.

New walls were built to separate classrooms from each other. Previously, as many as five classrooms were housed in one large room. Noise was often a problem.

"Having enclosed space helps conversation. It's private but not isolated. There's a lot of collaboration still but, with the enclosed space, there is a much more welcoming feel," said Elizabeth O'Toole, a first grade teacher.

The transition back into the school has been smooth, with only a few minor kinks. It was the last two years that were much more trying for the faculty and students. When construction began, the school moved into the recently closed Thompson School.

"We wanted to stay together, to stay a community. The people in this school have always been committed. Once they come, they don't leave," O'Connell said.

For two trying years, the faculty and students made the Thompson a temporary home. There was fear that many students wouldn't make the move, especially those that lived locally. Teachers, often two to a classroom, made the best of it, and they say the payoff was worth the wait.

"There's a new energy in the building now and enrollment has increased from 660 students to 720 students." O'Connell said.

The school building itself is not the only area that got renovated. There are two new playgrounds and a park in front of the school. Teachers have rearranged the lunch schedule so every student can get out onto the playground at least once a day. Students and teachers stay after school longer now because the new space makes new programming possible.

Presently the school offers classes from kindergarten to fifth grade, but there is room for an expansion up to eighth grade. With new computer labs and a freshly painted cafeteria, it's not just the new windows that are making the future look bright for the Holland.

"We used to get defensive when people said it [the old school] looked bad. The first few times I came in the doors, after the renovation, I cried. I didn't realize how bad it was. It's the teachers, though, that really deserve this." O'Toole said.