Helen Thackston Charter School Homeland Security teacher Nathan Lloyd constructs a bulletin board in his classroom in a new section of the school Tuesday,
Helen Thackston Charter School Homeland Security teacher Nathan Lloyd constructs a bulletin board in his classroom in a new section of the school Tuesday, August 20, 2013. Students return to school Wednesday with all construction completed. (Bill Kalina photo)

Students at Helen Thackston Charter School won't be plucking milk cartons off of trays parked in the hallway this year.

They won't have to journey to the first floor every time they need a bathroom break.

And parents will likely appreciate the travel lane added to East Philadelphia Street designed to ease the pick-up and drop-off process each morning and afternoon.

An $11 million project to expand the fifth- through 11th-grade school is officially complete at Helen Thackston -- just in time for the start of school today.

Students got a brief introduction to the promised

changes toward the end of the school year in May, when administrators opened part of the new addition for the first time. Work continued over the summer to complete construction.

Greater capacity: The new addition increases the school's capacity from 500 students last year to 750 students now.

Because of the added capacity, school administrators are still accepting students for grades 6 through 11.

The 46,000-square-foot addition includes a cafeteria that will also be used as a gymnasium, a new library, lockers, kitchen, large windows, media center, nurses' station and classroom space.

And, of course, there are bathrooms "literally everywhere," said Anne Clark, community outreach specialist for the school.

This year, Helen Thackston will continue to serve its students catered meals for breakfast and lunch, but a new kitchen will allow the school to begin cooking its own food next year, Clark said.

New leader: Helen Thackston also has a new principal.

Kahleel Desaque, a former school principal in Baltimore, said he's focused on ensuring that Helen Thackston students are prepared for college and careers.

New to the charter-school model, Desaque said he intends to see that all Helen Thackston teachers are certified.

Charter schools must adhere to state laws, "but we have autonomy to be a little unorthodox," he said.

That flexibility is reflected in the school's Homeland Security theme, Desaque said.

A core component of that theme is the class taught by teacher Chris Morris, who was busy Tuesday preparing his classroom for students' return.

The room is decorated with the flags of different countries, which Morris uses to identify groups of students -- whom he likes to call "ambassadors."

"I'm giving kids an awareness of the world," he said.

-- Erin James may also be reached at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.