After voting unanimously to move forward with plans to build new middle and high school buildings, the school board held its first Community Input Night on Sept. 25.
Roughly 60 people attended to hear a presentation detailing the current state of the proposed $209.6 million school buildings and the plans for the future. Participants then broke off into groups to ask questions and provide feedback.
Space and light
Roberto Fitzgerald and Lee Dore of Dore & Whittier were on hand to share idea boards for what the new construction could look like. They started by highlighting the problems with the existing buildings, from the roofs in need of replacement to the lack of natural light to overcrowding at the high school.
The high school building is designed for a capacity of 880, but currently has 921 students enrolled. Projections show that number rising to 1,050 over the next 10 years.
Another issue is the design of the classrooms, which supports the outdated “stand and deliver” teaching style that was popular when the school was built in 1957. Since then, schools have taken a more collaborative approach to teaching, creating teams of teachers that work together to guide students through their education, Dore explained.
“The buildings are just educationally obsolete with what we want to do now and into the future,” he said.
The architects’ vision for the new middle school building includes hubs for each team, consisting of separate classrooms, a large common area in the middle, smaller breakaway spaces, a special education office and a teacher collaboration space. As an example, Fitzgerald showed photos from their recent work at Shelburne Community School, where they renovated the middle school wing. Similarly, the high school would be split into departments and feature different sized classrooms to make the most efficient use of the space, placing classes with lower enrollment into the smaller rooms.
While renovation was heavily considered for the middle school building, the board ultimately voted for a new building after factoring in the significant education disruption renovation would require. Students would need to be moved to trailers acting as portable classrooms, which are very expensive and add no value to the community’s investment. The renovation would mean opening up all the walls and ceilings, a project that would be far too extensive to complete over one summer.
Additionally, after spending a few days speaking with students and gathering input, Dore & Whittier reported that a lack of natural light was the number one complaint from the kids. Currently, more than 50 percent of the middle school building lacks natural light. The new design will provide ample daylight throughout the school.
Other improvements to the campus include a new performing arts space in the high school with seating for 750 people (the existing auditorium can only accommodate 420), a costume shop, a tech space and dressing rooms (students and outside groups use classrooms now to prepare for their various performances). There will also be a black box theater, which will double as a choral room. The architects are also aiming to alleviate morning traffic congestion by offering separate loops for bus and parent drop-offs. Both school buildings have designated spaces for potential future additions.
One of the more heavily discussed topics during the breakaway groups was the proposed Wellness Center and if there is a need for it. After learning that the Wellness Center would act as the high school gym, many people felt the name itself — Wellness Center — is misleading. The board and architects are open to suggestions for alternate names.
The building would be a multi-sports complex that serves as the high school gym, with a hardwood competition basketball court, additional turf courts, extending the life of team sports through the winter, a movement studio, a cardio and weight room, a physical therapy space, a trainers’ room, locker rooms and, most notably, an indoor track to accommodate the 160 or so students who participate in that sport. Currently, indoor track members use the school hallways for their practices. The additional courts would be inside the track. The locker rooms would have a separate entrance straight to the outdoor fields and courts. Although priority will be given to the high school programming, there is potential for the facility to be used by outside groups and community members during off hours in the evenings, early mornings or over the summer.
Lastly, the center would include bleacher seating for 1,000, offering an opportunity for large events, such as graduation and all-school assemblies. At present, assemblies are held during two separate sessions, as the school is unable to gather the entire student body in one place.
Should the Wellness Center not move forward, the various components needed for the high school gym, which make up about one-half to three-quarters of the building, would need to be added to the high school design. The middle school will have its own gymnasium.
Sustainability and security
Other concerns raised by the smaller groups were sustainability and security. While all new construction does mean a substantial carbon footprint, the architects have ambitious goals to achieve net zero buildings, meaning that the total amount of energy used by the site on an annual basis is equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site. The construction will be LEED certified, with efficient HVAC systems and low-flow plumbing. The buildings will also be solar-ready and oriented on the property to maximize on sunlight throughout the day. All of these goals are reflected in the estimated $209.6 million cost of the project.
As for security, the campus will have separate entrances for each building, with various security checkpoints for outside guests to gain access to the school. In the high school, visitors will have no choice but to go through the administrative office in order to acquire an ID badge. The buildings will also be placed at the rear of the property, considered best practice by security experts.
A second Community Input Night is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. in the high school library. The school board strongly urges the public to attend. To view the Sep. 25 meeting, visit www.retn.org/south-burlington-school-board.