By Jody Steinberg

Workers participate in a construction project at Cross Keys High School.

After years of delays, Cross Keys High School finally is getting the facelift it was promised. A highly-visible – and audible – construction project is under way.

“It’s kind of cool to look out the window and see construction workers tearing your school apart. It’s weird, but it’s entertainingly disruptive,” Cross Keys senior Haddy Gassama said.

In October, Gassama was one of many in the Cross Keys community who thought they would never see the renovation begin. She remembers when her parents and others voted for a special local option sales tax, or SPLOST, to pay for renovations at Cross Keys. The renovations were supposed to take place between 2002 and 2007.

“I was excited because I thought the school would be renovated over the summer and that I’d be going into a new building for ninth grade,” she said. But that didn’t happen, and “year after year we’d be disappointed.”

Today, though the construction is inconvenient – a large part of Cross Keys’ campus is fenced off – Gassama said she and her friends like what they see. They see progress.

First up: a 25,000-square-foot expansion to the wing of the school that previously held the art studios and “shop” classrooms. The wing, which will be close to 40,000 square feet when finished, will house a state-of-the-art Career Technology instruction center.

Last year, the DeKalb school system closed High School Technology North, scattering its students and faculty to other campuses. What was left of the core technology program was moved to Cross Keys, which will now offer at least five career tech certification programs: Automotive, Cosmetology, Dental/Health Occupations, Business and Construction.

When construction is complete, each certification program will have an instructional suite with classroom, lab and office space, and the art program will return to the wing with larger rooms, said Evergreen Construction on-site Project Manager Skip Weiss.

Classrooms must comply with Georgia Department of Education requirements and industry certification standards, explained Cross Keys project designer Jason Switchenberg of Richard Wittschiebe Hand architectural firm. “We went with the more stringent standards in each case,” he said.

With work under way on the Career Tech instructional center, it’s easy to forget that career technology was not the main focus of Cross Keys’ original renovation plans, which date back almost a decade. The school is more than 50 years old and has never been updated.

The renovation is intended to improve the entire building. It will provide health and safety improvements, including a new HVAC system, asbestos abatement and new bathrooms fixtures and plumbing. Each classroom and hallway will get new, energy-efficient windows, doors, ceilings, lights, ductwork, writing boards and in some cases, SmartBoards, while the terrazzo floors will be repaired and polished.

At times, renovation plans have not gone smoothly. At least one architect quit, the renovation was rebid, and then the contractor had to wait months after setting up the construction site before the county issued permits. Those delays cost money, eating into the $16.9 million originally earmarked for renovations. But the bad economy may help by lowering the price of some construction, said Barbara Colman, interim Operations Officer for the Capital Improvements Plan, who oversees all SPLOST projects.

Construction contractor Evergreen started work last fall, said Weiss, and construction is supposed to continue through 2011.

Gassama will probably never get a chance to study in a clean, “new” high school. Come fall, she and her best friend and classmate, Maima Kiawu, are bound for Armstrong Atlantic State University on HOPE scholarships.

But she’s not bitter. Gassama has two younger sisters who will attend Cross Keys, and she values her school’s place in the community. She plans to visit when she comes home from college to see the results of the construction she now watches from her classroom window.

“We won’t get to enjoy it, but hopefully the kids behind us will appreciate it and enjoy it,” Gassama said. “It’s pretty cool, hard-core evidence that something is being done. Finally.”