SEOUL - What a difference a summer -- and $600,000 in repairs -- can make.

Students and teachers at Seoul American Middle School arrived Monday to find new mold-resistant rubber floors, painted walls, near-silent air conditioners and functioning toilets in what had been the beleaguered school’s worst buildings, where respiratory and allergy problems had been frequent complaints and teachers had reported seeing rats.

But the true test of the renovations came last Friday, when monsoon rains temporarily closed down a portion of 8th Army Drive in front of the campus on Yongsan Garrison — and caused teachers to fear that the school’s backup-prone septic system would be swamped in the downpour.

“In the past, the toilets would have exploded, and the urinals would have overflowed,” principal David Dinges said. “But it went well.”

Complaints had centered around six aging classroom buildings plagued by mold and poor heating and air-conditioning systems. Dinges said the renovated classrooms are “like night and day” compared with their condition before the repairs.“I firmly believe that the mold is done, completely eradicated,” he said, adding that no rats had been found.

A handful of Department of Defense Dependents Schools teachers and students at the middle school raved about the improvements, which included air-filtration systems, brighter lights, new electrical wiring and free-standing air conditioners to replace the window units. New sidewalks were installed outside the classrooms, and ramps replaced the steep outside stairs that teachers said sometimes became slick with ice during the winter.

“I can actually focus,” seventh-grader Nicholas Burden said, adding that the old classrooms were uncomfortable. “It’s a clear space. I can actually think.”

“It feels bigger than last year. Everything’s new, so you don’t feel like you’re using hand-me-downs,” classmate Sammie Escamilla said. “You don’t feel like you’re worse than the other [elementary and high school] students because they have new equipment.”

Seventh-grade language arts teacher Richard Dye, was skeptical that the repairs could fix his classroom’s problems, including visible spots of black mold growing through the carpet and a smell “like a locker room after a football game,” but he’s a believer now that the work is done. “It’s like a totally new world,” he said. “I feel like I’m teaching in a brand new school.”

The school also has more classrooms than it did last year, with the addition of a building previously used by the elementary school. The building added seven more classrooms, meaning every teacher now has a permanent classroom, and the campus is more centralized, Dinges said.

School officials said they want a second round of renovations to fix such less-urgent problems as leveling the courtyard at the heart of the campus and upgrading classrooms in a building across the street from the main campus. The school is not alone among DODDS facilities worldwide needing attention.

DODDS surveys over the past two years show that many military schools are in poor and failing physical condition. The agency said it is working with the Defense Department to secure $3.7 billion over the next five years to make needed repairs and upgrades worldwide. How much more the military will want to spend on the Seoul American Middle School remains to be seen.

U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan has been scheduled to close for years, but the date has been delayed several times. Last spring, U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp said the base would likely remain open another five or six years, instead of closing in 2012 as planned. The previous garrison commander, Col. David Hall, said in June that the $600,000 spent on the middle school would not be enough if Yongsan stays open longer than five years.

“It’s a balancing act between putting enough money in to make sure these facilities are at standards, and putting too much money in if you’re going to be leaving in the near future,” said DODDS-Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff.

This story has been corrected from the original version.

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