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Unprecedented process underway to reshape Arlington High

Town residents gather in Old Hall as Assistant McCarthy explains.Town residents gather in Old Hall as Assistant Principal William McCarthy (checked shirt) explains during a Dec. 7 tour of the high school.

In January, 100 years after construction of the original building at Arlington High School began, the school administration plans to seek state funds to pursue a project unprecedented here -- reshaping the Mass. Ave. landmark.

"There has never been a major top-down, whole-school renovation," the school administration says in a flier circulated this month.

On-site Insight, a Boston company that the schools hired for the $20 million Thompson School project, estimates a cost of replacing Arlington High's aging infrastructure at $35 million. This is the cost to repair all systems that are past their usable life. It will not address the educational, safety and enrollment issues in the building.

The total amount of money needed is a matter for future discussion, but town leaders know they must act.

"We don't yet know what the project will cost," Principal Matthew Janger told YourArlington. "The first step is the feasibility study, which will give us our options."

Winchester voters this month approved a tax increase to help pay for a $129.9 million overhaul of the town's high school.

High school on 'warning' status

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the body that evaluates schools, has placed AHS on "warning" status for school accreditation. Its report, released last summer, included a warning letter in September. It cites inadequate classrooms, science labs and technology infrastructure, affecting the overall learning environment of the school's students.

Dec. 23: Punch list from accreditation report

To address the issue, the Arlington public-school administration plans to takes its first key step next month -- submitting a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to move toward rebuilding or remodeling the high school.

To provide a firsthand look, two tours of the high school were held in December. On one of them, Saturday, Dec. 7, 21 people heard Assistant Principal William McCarthy, carrying an iPad, offer "play by play" and Principal Janger provide "color."

Dec. 7 tour offers inside look

Here are snapshots from two hours of meandering through the AHS maze, where participants saw the results of years of delayed maintenance and heard the hopes of school leaders for a 21st-century education here.

Walking through the school that serves 1,350 students, you see the chaos.

Named this year one of the top high schools in Massachusetts by Boston magazine, at No. 40, you wonder how.

The school's building history reflects a piecework approach, a lack of overall, long-term design. The graphic below shows how. Follow the letters on the image from Google Earth:

Google Earth view of Arlington High School with letters indicating its buildings.A. The original building, off Schouler Court, now called Fusco House, was built in 1914 and had some renovation in 1981.

 B. The current main office was built 1938 and underwent some renovation in 1981.

C. The section called Collomb House was built 1938 and had some renovation in 1981.

D. Lowe Auditorium, the school's performance space, was also built 1938 underwent some renovation in 1981.

E. Toward Peirce Field, Downs House was built 1964 and has had no significant renovation.

F. The Links Building, which connects Downs and Lowe, went up in 1981 has not been renovated.

G. Offices and the cafeteria were built 1960s.

H. The Red Gym went up in 1981.

I. The Blue Gym and its locker rooms were built in 1960 and were renovated in 1981.

"The tour can't show everything," McCarthy told all gathered. He vowed to hit the high points -- structural issues, room size, technology, heating.

Bringing 1914 school into the 21st century

Behind all of details presented hovered a larger theme -- How do we make the school ready for 21st-century education?

Doing so means improving security. AHS has 32 exterior doors, any one of which could be propped open with a rock.

Doing so means providing sufficient space in a number of areas. McCarthy pointed to the guidance office, to the right of the lobby: "Not all can fit there." Some counselors have to use offices near the media center.

We climbed the Fusco stairs to the fifth floor, where a wall with an orange and blue map of the continents signals world languages.

Flourescent light pokes through a fifth-floor wall.But the world on the fifth floor is broken up: A fluorescent light, shown at left, extends through a hole high in a wall.

This area "has been cut up multiple times," McCarthy said, as rooms were subdivided, and room 503 became two rooms, A and B.

"No phones in this room," McCarthy said of 503B, raising an issue about what to do in an emergency.

Selectmen Dan Dunn and John Maher, building committee member, in the room where the light come through.Selectmen Dan Dunn, left, and building committee member John Maher in the room where a flourescent light pokes through a wall. Janger explained how AHS got to this point: "Years of deferred maintenance."

Desks crowd the subdivided rooms. In one, 25 or so desks squeeze into a 400-square-foot triangular space. The average class size at AHS is 25.

"What's the optimal size of class?" asked Finance Committee Vice Chairman Alan Jones.

"Build four or five larger than you expect," commented School Committee member Bill Hayner.

State building authority rules call for 850 to 950 square feet for a standard core classroom and 1,250 square feet for a science lab.

Impact of Internet on education

Apart from classroom size, many of the rooms themselves were built before the Internet and its resulting culture.

Janger noted the difficulties of installing effective Wi-Fi at AHS. The nodes, which relay signals, are in every other room. That means "in-and-out" wireless service.

"It goes from wonderful to none," Janger said.

That doesn't just mean that online games tune out; it also means that the numerous students who use phones for taking notes or research hit roadblocks.

At Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor, Maine, where Janger was principal until last July, he said all students got laptops, a program that begins in sixth grade there. If that happened here, he said, the load on the network would "crush our system."

We walked to the single elevator, which accommodates three people. We didn't take it; we took the stairs and wound around until we emerged at Old Hall, a cavernous, desk-strewn space used as a study hall (a 2009 feature story explains). In the background, the thump and drum music accompanied a Saturday wrestling practice.

McCarthy pointed to a row of windows overlooking Old Hall -- offices and special-education classrooms, all exposed to the noise below.

Example of crumbling school

In a visit to room 303, one of the school's largest classes, McCarthy said two sections of plaster fell from the ceiling in the spring of 2012. One was roughly one foot across; the other was two feet across.

"We’re lucky no one was injured," he told the tour. "... The building is crumbling."

Amid deafening music, we passed wrestlers slipping, sliding and slithering in the "Pit."

We walked to the loading-dock area, at ground level near Schouler Court. The exit is near doors to the Red Gym. In newer high schools, McCarthy said, loading docks are installed in areas where students do not have access.

In the Red Gym, we saw the only space at AHS large enough for assemblies for 1,250 students. Lowe Auditorium holds 950.

We walked to the equipment room behind the Blue Gym, where people "break in all the time to work out," McCarthy said. In the summer, he said he has seen 30 to 40 people from town who decided to come in and use the equipment. All were not authorized to be there.

We wended our way to Downs House, where at one end, far from classrooms, sits the only bathroom.

Waffle-shaped ceiling

In one of the classrooms, the waffle-shaped ceiling does not permit the direct hanging of a projector, and so the cost to do that is $1,800.

Asked how many windows at AHS are energy-efficient, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie said: "I don't know of any." The windows date from the 1960s.

McCarthy notes that the school's heating system results in room temperatures that range from 40 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

As for Downs in general, built nearly 50 years ago, Janger said: "Not many features of this building are worth keeping."

Could the tour go lower? Yes, it could.

We descended into the basement of 1938-built Collomb House and headed for the woodworking shop. It has not been active for some time but is reopening to students in January.

Both Janger and Bodie said the schools "need to keep this space" to continue hands-on learning.

Sets for "Dead Man Walking," performed at Lowe in November, were made here. Because of access issues, they had to be taken to the theater in pieces. The design of newer schools has a direct path from woodworking to a theater.

Nearby, we walked to where the auto shop once was. The space is now used to store shells for the joint AHS-Belmont crew team. It is known to flood, a situation that gives rise to jokes about how the shells might float to Spy Pond.

We passed room 105, locked per order to town Health Department, a reminder of environmental issues underlying AHS: In 1914, it was built on a filled-in swamp that became polluted by industrial operations located where the Town Yard is.

Nearby are the town/school IT department, its phone operators, the comptroller and retirement offices: AHS shares its space with a number of other functions.

Three boilers; one 'derelict'

In a large basement grotto, we saw three huge boilers -- all gas, with one pushing out heat. Mark Miano, the town/school facilities manager, called one "derelict," and is used only on the coldest days of winter.

Back into the light of midday, we saw the cafeteria, which can accommodate 350 people. McCarthy called it "a tight fit."

Besides providing space for lunch, the cafeteria also used for the community education program, dances and faculty meetings.

From the cafeteria's windows, we peered down at the courtyard at what an environmental class has accomplished in that trapped green space. In that context, Janger called the challenge to make a revamped high school comply with goals of sustainability an educational opportunity.

Continuing to look at the broader picture, the principal talked about how the library/media center might change after we walked upstairs and gathered there.

He said the design for a digital future points to "multiple levels" -- that is, at least two stories -- which could include a learning commons.

Who took tour Dec. 7

Among the 23 people who toured the high school that Saturday were members of the:

Finance Committee (Allan Tosti, Charles Foskett, Alan Jones);

School Committee (Kirsi Allison-Ampe, Judson Pierce, William Hayner, Paul Schlichtman);

Board of Selectmen (Dan Dunn, Steve Byrne, Joseph Curro Jr.);

Town Meeting (Chris Loreti);

Permanent Town Building Committee (John Cole, John Maher, Alan Reedy, Mark Miano, town/school facilities manager)

State Rep. Sean Garballey

Administration (Superintendent Kathleen Bodie, high school Principal Matthew Janger, Assistant Principal William McCarthy)

This story was published Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.

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