The new building that will house the student cafeteria is seen in its final stages of construction on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021 at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The first phase of Oak Park and River Forest High School’s major renovation project is almost complete, including the construction of a brand-new three-story building home to a new south cafeteria and student resource center. 

In August, the school unveiled a refurbished welcome center and student commons area, both of which are aspects of Phase 1. The first project cost roughly $36.1 million, and the school district partnered with FGM Architects and the Pepper Construction Company on a long list of capital improvements. 

Construction of the 45,000-square-foot new section started last summer after the old south cafeteria was demolished, said OPRF spokeswoman Karin Sullivan. The new south cafeteria, which will open in January in time for staff and students’ return from winter break, will look “much more welcoming” and have a “less ‘institutional feel,’” Sullivan said. 

From lighting to flooring and seating options, most of the south cafeteria’s amenities are new. One aspect of the cafeteria that remains unchanged is the serving line area, where students typically gather to select and purchase meals. 

The new building that will house the student cafeteria is seen in its final stages of construction on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021 at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Sullivan said the return of the south cafeteria “is huge,” as district officials leaned on the north cafeteria and other spaces such as the fieldhouse or balcony to keep students socially distanced during lunch periods. In recent weeks, as new COVID-19 cases began to rise at OPRF, district officials converted one of its gyms into another makeshift cafeteria and offered all students the option to eat lunch outside school grounds. 

“We had kids eating in the new balcony and the new space outside the auditorium and sitting on the floor. We were pulling out desks into the hallway just to give kids a space to eat indoors,” Sullivan said. 

“We’ve had kids eating in one of our gyms, and we’ve been able to spread kids out there. We can fit a lot of tables in [the gym], but having the south cafeteria back means that we have two fully functional cafeterias,” she said. “Plus, if we need additional space, that gym that we’ve been using, we can use that as extra space if we determine we really need to spread kids out more.” 

As for the student resource center, Sullivan described the new additions as bright, airy.  

The center, which will also open in January, is split into two floors. One floor will hold a tutoring center and makerspace, while the other expands into the library. The floors are connected by a “Learning Stair,” an open stairway that can also transform into another classroom. An elevator has been installed to make the floors accessible for staff and students. 

“There are screens where video and presentations can be projected,” she said. “If classes aren’t meeting there, it’s a great gathering space for students.” 

Sullivan said the resource center is a direct response to students’ calls for more hangout spaces on school grounds. The center will feature some large windows, allowing natural light to shine through, and the library is expected to have a lounge-like reading area for students to sit back and relax. 

“One thing that we heard repeatedly during the process was that there just wasn’t a good place for kids to hang out outside of school hours, and they want to spend more time in the building,” she said. “They want a space where they can hang out, where they can collaborate, work on projects together, where they can study.” 

Plans to install a set of classrooms and breakout rooms in the old library and makerspace marks the last bit of the project. Phase 1 of the five-part school renovation project is expected to wrap up by August 2023, Sullivan said. 

Join the discussion on social media!