By Jody Steinberg

What a difference a window makes.

Renovations on the 52-year-old Cross Keys High School are proceeding ahead of schedule. Supervisor Skip Weiss and his workers have been transforming everything from the windows to the HVAC system. The building is slated to reopen by the first of August.

Windows are just one of the many improvements at the newly-renovated Cross Keys High School, but they are important – their clean, new look helps spotlight all other improvements that are transforming the 52-year-old building from a deteriorating institution to a showplace.

“It’s very gratifying,” enthused Kim Gocke, founder and president of the Cross Keys Foundation, which serves the cluster of Brookhaven schools that feed into Cross Keys. “The new HVAC, lighting, ceilings, paint … it’s fantastic! You wouldn’t know it’s still Cross Keys from the inside. The air quality is so much better – you can feel the cool, delicious air.”

The renovation and expansion, which began last spring, is moving rapidly and construction is ahead of schedule. When construction began, estimated completion was “some time” in late 2011. Cross Keys Principal Dr. LaShawn McMillan says the completion date has been moved up to January.

“We’ve had a really good contractor and they work really hard all summer and they’ve just done a really good job,” McMillan said. “They work on the weekends and in the evenings – as a faculty, we’ve made an effort to stay out of their way.”

McMillan and Gocke say they showed a small group of student volunteers through the renovated cafeteria recently and basked in their response. One returning senior couldn’t stop smiling, they said, as she told them she was going to be excited to come to school every morning.

Others among the 900 students expected to attend Cross Keys this year may feel the same once they return. A large number of them will spend a majority of their time on the Fourth Hall, where the oversized career technology and art classrooms sparkle with new equipment.

Cross Keys will offer five career technology programs in state-of-the-art facilities: Cosmetology, Dental Science, Automotive, Engineering and Computer Science. Since High School Technology North closed in 2009, students in North DeKalb have not had access to an automotive program, while Cross Keys career programs were restricted by their temporary classrooms in quadruple-sized trailers called “quads.” Not any more.

“In the quads, they weren’t running full service programs, but now that we have all the equipment and the facilities, Career Tech will increase enrollment. Our kids are taking advantage of it being here,” McMillan said.

Art students, who worried they would lose their old classroom’s prized high ceilings, will be thrilled with two new classrooms with a view of the courtyard. “They have their own patio, which is like an outdoor classroom, new tables and equipment,” McMillan said. “It’s beautiful.”

Courtyard improvements and new landscaping are all that were budgeted for the grounds at Cross Keys, but the school board recently decided to reallocate some of the renovation budget for sidewalk and parking lot improvements. “We’re getting a lot more for the money due to the economy,” said Gocke.

With major phases of the work planned at the front and back of the school completed, Third, Second and First halls remain. Construction is already under way on Third Hall, which should be finished by the end of August. The classes have been shifted to the quads and other trailers. Then, classes from Second Hall classes will move into trailers during construction, followed by classes on First Hall. Renovations include new windows, doors, lights, flooring, bathrooms, desks, cabinets, book cases and boards.

During the summer, administrators have been working from a trailer in the parking lot. They say the construction has piqued the interest of the community. School counselors have seen an unusual increase in parents bringing their students in to register throughout the summer, McMillan said.

But few have seen the inside of the building, which has been closed all summer while the media center, administrative offices and entry area have gotten a facelift. The building is on schedule to reopen by the first of August, just in time to restock the media center and prepare for the influx of students.

“I’m always excited about the beginning of a new school year,” McMillan said. “But it feels different to walk into a building that’s virtually new.”