School leaders asked to renovate high school to fit 21st century vision

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Chris Blessen of Tappe Architects talked about the insufficiencies of the current high school building at a presentation on Jan. 7. — Photo by Cathryn McCann

Chris Blessen of Boston-based Tappe Architects, a firm that specializes in school construction and design, told a group of Martha’s Vineyard school officials and parents on Thursday night that in addition to correcting deficiencies in the high school building opened in 1959, the emphasis ought to be on renovations that transform the building to support a 21st century model built around student collaboration and modern technology.

Tappe is currently evaluating several studies conducted over the summer and fall of the athletic facilities and fields; building envelope and windows; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system; and space needs. School leaders are currently looking at more than $16.5 million in overall costs for the entire package.

“We all know that high school has changed since we all went, and the needs of kids’ education today are different,” Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea said.

Since April, Tappe has been working with school facilities director Mike Taus, school educators, and school administrators to gather information about how the school is used, Mr. Blessen said. Thursday night’s presentation was meant to generate a discussion around how the building will support educational goals, rather than the brick-and-mortar details, he said.

The ‘four Cs’ of education

Thursday night, Mr. Blessen showed a video, “Changing Paradigms,” produced by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA), and narrated by Ken Robinson, a creativity and education scholar. The video said the current educational system is designed and conceived for a different age, and is one that is alienating and causing chaos for some students.

It provided the example of medicating students diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), rather than adjusting teaching strategies and learning environments.

Mr. Blessen said the future of schools is rooted in a “21st century education,” and a more collaborative environment. He identified the skills of a 21st century learner as the four Cs: creator, collaborator, communicator, and critical thinker. “The school buildings that we built 50 years ago don’t necessarily support these ideas,” he said.

Mr. Blessen described a school made up of small learning communities, intertwined with a media center so students can utilize modern technology. This construction, he said, enables more STEAM education, or the meshing of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the arts. This contrasts with current design concepts, which are more institutionalized, with classrooms dedicated to certain subjects, and certain subjects clustered together in one portion of the school.

There are problems specific to the MVRHS building that don’t support this 21st century education concept, Mr. Blessen said. He presented the floor plan of the current school building, constructed in a circular formation with portions of unused white space.

“The thing to highlight is, Look at the white space for the courtyards and look at how separated the school actually becomes, and look at how far away the media center and learning commons are from the science labs,” he said. “You end up in a scenario like this, with a building that’s really divided and in silos.”

The horticulture greenhouses are not in the best condition, and could use replacement; the athletic weight room across the road is falling apart; there are two highly underutilized courtyards; the Career Technical Education (CTE) department is grossly undersized, with no space to expand; and there are a number of fairly significant building issues, like the underperforming HVAC system and “tired finishes,” Mr. Blessen said.

Funding the problem

Martha’s Vineyard school leaders applied to the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s grant program for financial and planning assistance with the building renovation. Of 96 applications, only 16 schools were accepted by the program. MVRHS was not one of them. Mr. D’Andrea said he will apply to the program again this year.

When, or if, the school is accepted into the program, school leaders must conduct a feasibility study and develop a preferred schematic design, which takes about one year. Voters must approve the plan, and then it would be another year to come up with a detailed design plan.

Mr. Blessen said the discussion moving forward should be about the timeframe — what can be done now, and what can wait. “There are certain things about this building that need to be addressed now, and shouldn’t wait until five years from now,” Mr. Blessen said.

In total, it could be three to four years from the time of the feasibility study until the end product. “You would need to keep maintaining the triage in the building to stay safe for students during that time,” he said.

School leaders said that is the plan. In November, the school committee approved $350,000 worth of repairs to the building’s HVAC system to improve air quality and keep the system running until a larger school overhaul occurs.

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel requested school administrators start providing the towns with more specific financial numbers so the selectmen can look at capitalization plans. Other audience members also requested more specific costs.

Mr. Blessen said the focus for Thursday night’s presentation was to introduce the idea of a 21st century learning facility. He did not have a specific price tag because Tappe hadn’t created any options yet.

“We’re trying to be proactive about getting out in the community and opening forums like this that say, We’re moving in this direction, and there will be a point where we get to a cost,” he said.

However, there are some initial numbers drawn from recent studies, interim school Principal Peg Regan said. It’s about $6 million for athletic fields, $2 million for a new track, $4 million to address the building envelope and windows, and $4.5 million for the HVAC, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out what the ballpark figure is and be transparent about what it actually is, what’s necessary to do, and what we’re going to do,” she added.

Saving energy, and money

Several audience members asked about the school’s effort to utilize self-sustaining energy sources to augment the functionality of the HVAC system.

Mr. Blessen said that energy efficiency is at the forefront of their priorities, and every school they’ve worked on in the past 10 years or more has been Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, and of the gold standard or better, meaning the construction meets a number of green building standards and promotes renewable, clean energy.

Business administrator Amy Tierney said a few years ago, catalytic converters were added to reduce oil consumption, and the school system recently signed on to the Future Generation Wind Project, so it receives energy credits from wind turbines in the Bourne area.

MVRHS finance manager Mark Friedman said the school has been working with Cape Light Compact for a number of years to look for ways to improve energy efficiency, many of which have already been implemented with little to no cost, he said. But, “the low-hanging fruit, a lot of that has been picked at this point,” he said, and other energy-efficiency projects are more involved and more expensive.

Mr. Taus said part of the short-term HVAC improvement plan is a temperature control system that will modulate the building temperature and economize heating usage so one classroom won’t be hot while another is cold. The school is also working on the lighting system in the PAC and the school gymnasium, and looking into an light-emitting diode (LED) system to conserve energy.

Community input

One audience member suggested a regional middle school be built. Mr. D’Andrea said that option could be considered based on the different options that will be presented for review.

Another questioner asked if the Tappe architects thought they could transform the existing building into their 21st century learning community vision.

Mr. Blessen said they did; it was a matter of balancing all the various discussions and needs. “Most likely what you’ll see us do is take into consideration all these things,” he said. “I don’t think a new building is realistic, given this side of the building is not old … but you’ll see a series of options.”

Mr. D’Andrea said school leaders will be looking for more community input in order to continue with the process, and school leaders will be setting up a more formal procedure for feedback.

“We need strong people to keep this ball moving in the community,” Ms. Regan said. “This is a continuing process of educating the community about where we are, what the solutions are, what the obstacles are, and what are some of our choices.”

The next public facilities meeting will be held in early March, and will focus on the CTE and vocational portion of the school.