Belfield Public School makes the best of its small space by making many areas multi-use — the storage closet in the music room is also practice space for piano; the paper room is also a learning space, but perhaps no room in the school has more uses than the gymnasium.
Even Belfield's staff are reaching the limits of their resourcefulness. In addition to the age of the school — parts of which are about 80 years old — it's cramped. As the school district and board pursue a new facility, staff in the current one make do.
50 to 60 students at a time eat lunch on the stage inside the school's gymnasium. They're divided into four lunch periods; that's the only way they'll fit on the stage.
Mary Lou Schneider, head cook, said the space on the stage gets pretty tight with 60 kids up there, with little room to move between tables, and classroom access and safety prevent them from using the whole area.
"You've got the wall that goes into the music room," she said. "You've got to leave that open so the kids if they're in music can still come out to there. Even during serving time, she has a class or two up there ... On the other (side) is the edge of the stage. You want to keep enough room over there so two kids can walk by without falling off."
There's quite a bit of prep work that goes into making the space usable for lunch.
Every day, the janitor puts removable steps on the stage so students can get to it from the gymnasium floor for lunch. He arranges the tables. Schneider puts out trash cans and places napkin holders on the tables. She fills the salad bar, which is also set on the stage, with ice.
Due to the space constraints, some of the items they need aren't in or close to the kitchen.
"We used to have to carry the ice from the teacher's lounge way at the other end of the school over here," she said. "Us girls used to carry it. Finally, I got to the point where I said, 'Why can't the janitors do that to help us out?' They've been carrying the ice over for us. We used to have to walk all the way over there and get the two 5-gallon pails of ice that we use and carry those over here and fill the salad bar container and salad dressing container."
They wash their own aprons and towels in the school's laundry room, which is also on the other side of the school.
"It has to be carried over there. Every time you go to check on it to see if it's ready to throw in the dryer, you have to run way over there. Sometimes with that new machine that they have, it will tell you what time you have to wash the load, but you come back and it's not done yet ... A couple of weeks ago, we had an issue with the lights flickering about six times. The gal that was doing it had come over and come back. She thought it had washed. Well, when she got over there, it had quit when the lights went out."
Schneider's also cramped in the school's tiny kitchen, but she's used to it. She's worked there for almost 20 years.
"We pretty much know to watch out for the other person, and I always tell them, ‘When someone’s in the oven, you always wait until they’re done in the oven before you try to get around them just so they have enough room to get their stuff in or out, whichever way they’re going," she said.
She's gotten a few burns that way.
Watching out for one another isn't too much of a challenge, she said, depending on how many people they have working in the kitchen at a time. It ranges from two to four.
"Some days it gets pretty tight. It depends how much you have serving that day because you don’t have enough space sometimes to set everything that you’re preparing for that day," she said.
When they don't have enough room in the kitchen for the food they need, they take it upstairs.
"We have to go past the boiler room here and go up these six steps, and then we have to go into the storage room over there where our milk is and other veggies. If we need to refill stuff in between, we have to run up there all the time, get our stuff from up there, bring it down, get it washed and cleaned. If we don’t have enough room down here … we have to stick them up there in the coolers," Schneider said.
It can get fairly hot in the small kitchen, too. Schneider said one of her cooks saw the temperature in the room rise near 100 degrees when the ovens were on and it was hot outside.
"It gets pretty warm. You’re wet through and through by the time you get done," Schneider said.
The school board has been working on ways to alleviate the heat for the staff, such as installing a larger air conditioner and improving air flow through the gym. Schneider said it would help when they have the doors to the kitchen open, but as their proximity to gym class makes that more of a challenge.
"That cool air would drift in here if we had that open, but a lot of days we have to close that door and the window during the day because we’re prepping our food over on the table and they’re having phy-ed out there. You gotta close everything so the balls don’t fly in here and fly into the food you’re prepping," she said.
In addition to serving as the cafeteria, the stage also houses the physical education teacher's office, above which is the gym's storage area.