A big warning sign greeted students arriving Tuesday at Millard North High School.

“Danger. No Trespassing. Hard Hat Area.”

The scene is common this year among metro Omaha schools.

Many students returning to class this week and next will face parking-lot detours, heavy equipment and portable classrooms to accommodate school renovations and additions.

A pack of school bond issues approved by voters in the last few years is responsible for the increased construction activity:

» Papillion-La Vista passed a $59.6 million bond issue in 2012.

» Millard voters approved a $79.9 million bond issue in 2013.

» Elkhorn and OPS both passed bond measures last November, authorizing the districts to spend $63.1 million and $421 million, respectively, on school renovations and new construction.

Additional school districts are gearing up to tackle their own construction projects this year, including Westside, Bennington and Gretna, where voters gave the green light to bond measures in May.

At Millard North, the plaza by the school entrance is closed, as is part of the road used to drop off students. The entrance has been shifted temporarily to the south end of the school.

The project will create a new, secure front entrance, a 212-seat lecture hall and an upstairs corridor to relieve crowding when students walk between classes. The project will also renovate administrative space.

Julia Kolander, who teaches Latin at Millard North, arrived early Tuesday and avoided the rush of 2,475 students arriving for class.

Out a window, she watched drivers coping with the parking lot detour.

“It was organized,” she said. “The loop went fine, but they were still coming into the loop at 8:05, five minutes into our day already. I think it’s just a matter of coming earlier.”

Until the new corridor is done, students will have to funnel through a temporary hallway connecting the school’s two wings. During a morning passing period, the crowding problem was evident as students walking the hallway slowed to a crawl.

The new hallway will give students both an upstairs and downstairs route between the wings.

“Especially during the winter, this main hallway is a standstill,” said senior Turner Eakins. “You’ve got to move the crowd. If you want to get somewhere on time, you’ve got to be the one in there, elbows out, getting through to class.”

Eakins said the parking situation wasn’t as bad as he anticipated, despite the fenced-off construction area where a red crane hoisted materials for the new addition.

“Honestly, parking wasn’t too bad today, because it’s not taking up any parking spots, which I was really worried about,” he said. “Getting here early in the morning is not my specialty.”

Senior Libby Baxter said she hasn’t detected any construction noise inside the building. The construction, so far, has been “really low-key and unobtrusive,” she said.

In Omaha Public Schools, construction will be the norm at 11 schools this fall, with work crews descending on North and Blackburn High Schools and on Lewis and Clark, Monroe, Morton, McMillan and Marrs Middle Schools, along with several elementary schools.

Much of the work, which includes the installation of new fire alarms, sprinklers and card-swipe access systems, will occur at night and on the weekends, when school isn’t in session, OPS spokesman Todd Andrews said.

And then there’s Ponca Elementary.

The small elementary school in the Ponca Hills region off North Post Road will open its doors to just 144 students today. But they’ll return to a school that has been virtually gutted — and spend their first few months in portable classrooms.

The $4.5 million Ponca project will bring a slew of upgrades and renovations to the school, which was built in 1963.

The school will gain central air conditioning and heating, new energy-efficient windows, mounted projectors and smartboards in classrooms, handicapped-accessible ramps and a fortified library with a concrete roof and storm windows that can double as a tornado shelter.

Asbestos lurking inside walls will be removed, the school’s exterior will get a face-lift and security upgrades will be added, including a front office that gives staff a clearer view of the school’s entrance.

“It seems like, yes, we’re pretty much getting a new school,” Ponca Principal Jennifer LeClair said.

The existing school is walled off with fences and yellow caution tape. Dumpsters parked outside are filled with HVAC ducts and other scrap metal, and plywood covers much of the school’s exterior. Five portables are parked behind the school and will house classrooms for a good chunk of the school year. Parents will also have to navigate a new drop-off and pickup loop.

For the first few months of school, the building will be largely inaccessible, save for one hallway that will allow kids to scoot in and out for grab ‘n’ go breakfast and lunch. By October, one wing of the school should be finished, and all construction should be wrapped up by February, allowing kids and staff to move back into the new-and-improved Ponca.

“The school will be beautiful, but what we’re really focused on is making sure kids are learning,” LeClair said.

Parents have been notified of the construction via letters, a back-to-school packet with a map and updates on Facebook that have included construction photos. While families and staff were eager to see the layout of the portables and renderings of the completed school, Ponca staff are embracing the construction work.

The theme of the school year is “building a bright future for Ponca.” Staff decorated construction barricades with balloons and signs with slogans like “Welcome to second grade. You’re entering a learning zone.”

Ponca’s mascot, a raccoon, has been outfitted with a hammer and hard hat, and student-of-the-month winners will get a hard hat as a reward.

“We’re just so excited,” LeClair said. “For a long time, the future of Ponca was uncertain, and now the community has decided to make an investment in us, and we’re so grateful.”

The construction zone could also provide teachable moments for Ponca students. At Monday’s back-to-school event, LeClair said teachers launched into an impromptu lesson on erosion to explain why grass was being laid down on patches of dirt that had been graded and then washed away by rain.

“There are educational opportunities,” she said. “We talk about simple machines, and now you can see how they’re raising beams to the roof.”

Parents and students at La Vista Junior High School will arrive to find their school still under construction for another year.

The renovation and addition at La Vista Junior High is one of the final projects from the 2012 bond issue.

Also yet to be completed are a renovation at Papillion Junior High, renovation at Trumble Park Elementary and construction of a new junior high school southeast of 108th Street and Lincoln Road. The school will open in fall 2016.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

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