The jigsaw puzzle that will be the new home of Early Childhood Connections will soon come together, but first things must come apart.
Demolition started last week on the first building of the former Oak Park Medical Complex, 2501 E. 13th, to transform it into classrooms and offices for the programs for children under the age 5 and their families.
Friday morning in Building 1 — the L-shaped structure on the southeast side of the compound facing 13th Street — workers were busy removing doors, door frames, cabinetry and even ceiling tiles and moving them into storage containers in the parking lot.
The southern portion of the building will contain offices, a break room, conference and meeting rooms and a nurse’s station.
Some of the walls in the labyrinth of former exam rooms and offices in the north wing are marked “demo,” indicating which will be torn down to create the three classrooms and an activity room, each around 800 square feet.
The L-shaped building to the west will contain five classrooms, therapy rooms and several offices.
Five classrooms, a kitchen, storage and office space will be in the two small buildings to the north. Several outdoor play areas for different age groups will be included on the nearly 6 acres.
The “jigsaw puzzle” aspect of the design comes from trying to use many of the existing mechanical rooms and restrooms, Hays USD 489 Superintendent John Thissen and ECC Director Donna Hudson-Hamilton said.
The design phase saw several plans, delaying the demolition by about three weeks, Thissen said.
“What they wanted to do was come in and wipe it out and start over,” Thissen said of architects Jones Gillam Renz, Kansas City.
“That’s the easiest way to do it, but it was just too expensive to do it that way,” he said.
“I’m really impressed with the work they did in trying to preserve what they can and still try to make the classroom setting work,” he said.
The renovation project has a maximum budget of $1.7 million, Thissen told the USD 489 school board at least week’s meeting. That is funded by a $1.4 million grant from the federal Head Start Program and $500,000 donated by Hays Medical Center from its share of the sale of the complex.
Thissen expects three of the buildings will be complete by the time school starts in mid-August. The fourth building will contain space for the year-round programs in Munjor, so it won’t be as disruptive if that space isn’t open at the beginning of the school year, he said.
It will be those children and their families who benefit most from the move, Hudson-Hamilton said. Early Head Start offers center-based programs for infants to 3-year-olds in the former Munjor Elementary School about 15 miles southeast of Hays, with families having to transport their children there.
“Munjor is a great facility, but just to have them in town I think will be very helpful to parents,” Hudson-Hamilton said.
Hudson-Hamilton said the ECC staff is excited about the change, and have been keeping an eye on the facility in the last few weeks, watching for the dumpsters and storage containers that would indicate work was beginning.
In addition to bringing the Ellis County programs under one roof, Hudson-Hamilton said the move has other advantages.
“I’m very excited to have some more right-sized classrooms for some of our 3 to 5 preschool rooms. They’re going to have better space,” she said.
“Head Start is slowly mandating that all classrooms become full day, so there will be space there to do that,” she said.
She’s also excited about the parking lot.
“This kind of sounds like a little, silly thing, but I am so excited that we we have off-the-street parking for families,” she said.
Safety of children crossing the street to and from the former Washington Elementary School has been a concern, especially when glare from early morning sunlight makes it hard for drivers to see, she said.
But perhaps the biggest advantage will be having an environment that is better for learning, Hudson-Hamilton said.
“Just having a newer facility that doesn’t have the sewer issues, the heating and cooling issues, will be really nice for the staff and children,” she said.
Several years ago, a toilet backed up into a classroom, forcing the class to be relocated for several weeks. That problem was fixed, but Hudson-Hamilton said there tends to be a sewage smell throughout the building.
The boiler system does not keep the building heated consistently, she said.
“There’s days we have to have them keep their coats on until we can get the classrooms warmed up,” she said.
In addition, the top floor of the 93-year-old building is not ADA compliant so cannot be used for classrooms, according to fire code. It is used for offices.
Moving into the building when it was closed as a school after the 2014-15 school year did have its advantages, though, Hudson-Hamilton said.
At that point, ECC programs were located in Roosevelt and Lincoln elementary schools and Hays High.
“We enjoyed being out in different buildings. I think it was easier for some families having their children in one building,” Hudson-Hamilton said.
But over the years, when an ECC classroom moved to a different building, more children would enroll there, bringing a need for more space.
“So we were continually moving our classrooms and playgrounds wherever there was open space within the district,” she said.
“That was the bonus to moving here. We didn’t get moved around. It added the ability to be able to collaborate between the teachers, it was easier to get resources here because everybody was in one space,” she said.
“We’ve tried to make it as child-friendly as we can. We’ve had some great support in making this building a place for kids with some of the artwork we’ve done. That part’s kind of sad to leave,” she said.
The demolition begins a little more than a year after the idea of moving ECC was first proposed. A developer approached the district in February about the purchasing the complex, which had been on the market. In April, Hudson-Hamilton submitted a grant to the federal Head Start program to pay for the renovations.
She admitted she wasn’t sure the grant would be awarded, but gave it a shot. Six months later, the application was approved.
“Getting grants for renovations and building purposes is difficult, so I did not have a high level of confidence that we would receive it. So it’s just really been a blessing and I’m extremely excited we did receive it,” she said.