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The Long Vacation : Oak Park: Summer break, extended two weeks because of work on a new elementary school, finally ends as the $4.5-million campus opens.


As a bulldozer cruised slowly across the parking lot of Red Oak Elementary School in Oak Park, Justin Harris said he was glad to return to school after a summer vacation extended by two weeks because of construction.

"This way if I get hurt in ball I'll have myself an education to rely on," said Justin, a fourth-grader with baseball ambitions, before hustling off to find his classroom.

For Justin and 269 other Oak Park children, summer finally ended Monday as their new $4.5-million school opened. Because of construction delays, officials of the the Oak Park Unified School District had delayed Red Oak's opening two weeks while the rest of the district went back to class.

Adam Raffel, a third-grader, said he spent the vacation in day camp and "bugging my brother."

"I'm happy to be here," Adam declared. "I don't like camp."

But even with an extra two weeks to prepare, teachers and parents worked down to the bell--or the pleasant electronic buzzer that passes for one at the pink-hued school.

"It's probably easier to count the hours I wasn't here," Principal Jeff Hamlin said of the amount of time he had spent at Red Oak over the weekend. Monday morning, Hamlin said, "I left at 1 and came back at 6:30."

For others, the hours were even longer.

Teacher Mary Rockwell was all smiles for her second-grade class Monday morning despite staying up all night Saturday working on her classroom. Rockwell and the other teachers held a "slumber party" that night to get their classrooms ready.

"Two people slept and the rest of us didn't go to bed. We just worked," Rockwell said. "We had nothing in here on Thursday."

Judi Fields, president of the school's Parent Faculty Assn., said more than 100 parents also worked through the weekend, helping assemble desks and bookshelves, wash windows, build tricycles and playground equipment for the kindergarten children, and carrying out a myriad of other tasks needed to get classrooms up and ready for the children.

"We felt like a branch of the Amish raising a building," she said.

Although Fields was an irrepressible optimist during the delay, she said there was a moment when even she doubted the school would be ready to open Monday.

"On Friday, I walked into my son's classroom and there were boxes this high," she said, holding her arms over her head. "They were full of tables and chairs that hadn't been put together."

Kief Adler, who accompanied his daughter Alexis to second grade, said he was impressed with the look of the school. The cabinets, carpets and window trim are painted in soft pinks and blues.

"Of course," Adler said, "when pastels go out of fashion . . . "

But Adler, a contractor, said the district should have done a better job of planning. He said officials should not have waited until the week before the school's scheduled opening to announce it would be delayed.

"I kept telling my neighbors, when I kept looking at this empty lot, that there's no way the school's going to open on time. There's no way," Adler said.

Like many working parents, the Adlers took advantage of a day-care program, paid for by the school district.

And construction is not over yet.

The 14-classroom school that opened Monday was just the first phase of a complex to be built over the next year. By the fall of 1994, the school will have a second wing and a third building will house the office, school library and a multipurpose room.

Pennie Edwardsen led her first-grade students outside while she pointed to the space where the office building will go. It was just a swath of dirt on which a front-end loader and a grader were parked.

"Do you know what's going to be over there? Is it always going to be dirt?" Edwardsen said. "No. It's going to be our office. We're going to see a lot of construction going on over there, so it's very important that we don't go over there."

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