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New State High about more than 21st-century technology

by on August 01, 2017 11:02 AM

When class bells ring in the 201718 school year for State College Area High School students, they’ll be standing on the edge of a new era years in the making.

Come January, they’ll walk through the doors of a glistening new building on Westerly Parkway and turn the corner toward the future.

Sunlight will do most of the work to illuminate the building. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around most of its body, so the school will feel a part of the landscape around it.

Twenty-first century equipment in each of the four, three-story learning pods at the site of the old South Building will take students and teachers to new levels. At the same time, the central courtyard will let them get away from the 21st century when needed.

A 100-person, high-ceilinged forum sits as the centerpiece, with a view out above the massive main entrance, over the street, and down to the North Building.

The high school has “been growing, and growing, and growing as time goes along, but most of the original infrastructure dates back to the ’50s and ’60s,” says Ed Poprik, director of the physical plant for the State College Area School District. Poprik is playing a key role in the district’s $141 million project to build a new high school.

The North Building on Westerly Parkway replaced the Fairmont Building as State College’s primary high school in 1957. Whether planned or not, out of necessity the high school campus grew.

“I don’t know if they had hoped to or not, but when the district grew, the South Building had been a junior high and then became part of the high school when Park Forest and Mount Nittany (middle schools) came into being,” Superintendent Robert O’Donnell says. 

Their construction allowed the South Building, built in 1962, to house ninth- and tenthgraders in the 1980s. In 1990 the high school was restructured to be one school including both North and South buildings.

“Just through growth, we ended up with a campus,” says O’Donnell, who joined the district in 2011.

Multiple additions over the years helped the district keep up. A gymnasium and swimming pool were added in 1989, and additional classrooms and wings in 1999. Come the early 2000s, out of necessity once more, the district began looking toward the future.

“We started this in 2003,” Poprik says.

When the building got to be 50 years old, there had to be decisions about significant upgrades, he adds. With no air conditioning, a failing heating system and mechanical equipment not meant to last more than a half-century, conversations became about replacing the whole school. “We had a project planned that went out to bid in 2007. A lot of the comments were against it,” Poprik says, and the plan was eventually scrapped prior to a referendum.

Asking to raise residents’ taxes wasn’t easy, Poprik admits. “You’re asking people to go into a voting booth, close the curtain behind them and press a button that says, ‘Raise my taxes.’ It’s a tough question to ask.”

Seven years later, the district had more success. O’Donnell says six designs were presented to the community and narrowed down to one through community surveys. O’Donnell and Poprik agree that getting the residents of State College more involved in the process was paramount.

In May 2014, the State College district passed only the second referendum approving a school construction project in Pennsylvania history, allowing the district to borrow $85 million to help finance the work. Poprik thinks the 2014 effort was successful because district residents came to believe they have a responsibility to the future.

“Most voters don’t have kids in school but the way we tried to ask them to think about it is, ‘X-number of years ago, somebody who didn’t have kids in school paid for your education. Now it’s time to pay it back,’” he says.

Other funding includes a separate $46 million bond issue, with the debt service payments funded through the district’s current revenue stream, and $10 million from the district’s capital reserve fund. A $3.5 million contingency fund sits untouched at this point in the construction.

Now halfway through the project, started in 2015 and slated to finish in the summer of 2019, the first building is coming into focus. Four three-story educational pods jut out from in front of the old South Building; they look out over the soon-tobe-revitalized North Building. Attached to the curved main hallway and outdoor green space, the pods are an attempt to bring the scale of the high school down a little.

“Besides (changing) the building, we’re looking at how we educate kids,” Poprik says. “Previously it was a factory model where kids move from room to room and there’s a bank of social studies rooms and then a bank of English rooms.”

In these new pods, classes will be clustered and a student may take social studies or English next door to where he or she takes math or science. By clustering classrooms, the district is hoping to create more connectivity between students, teachers, and the subjects they study and teach.

The current high school expanded to include the South Building because there was a need for space, O’Donnell says.

“It wasn’t by design or proximity — what you see there happened because of growth,” he says. “The layout of this new campus is done purposively. Student programs and experiences are at the core of our design.”

Outside of the core classes, whether students are inclined to arts, humanities, business, healthcare, or the auto shop, O’Donnell says the facilities are laid out in a more user-friendly manner. “We wanted to update outdated facilities, climate control, and safety.”

With 2,000 students at State High, it’s easy for many not to see a teacher more than once a day. O’Donnell wants to change that.

“I was in an 1,100-student school … where I was teaching,” he says of a previous position in Pennsylvania. “I probably saw my kids two or three times a day just by standing in the hallway. If a student’s going to see their teacher multiple times a day, then there’s going to be more interaction (between them).”

It’s for the teachers too, O’Donnell says. Understanding who their students are, what their interests are, and what their career goals are will help teachers know strengths and weaknesses, so they can grow with their students. By clustering interest areas into the pods and keeping students near the same people during the day, O’Donnell and his team are hopeful students will get a more personalized learning experience.

Designing a space to foster relationships is an arduous task when no test run can be done before it goes into service.

“The challenges to get to this point included alignment,” O’Donnell says. “Getting people to align, getting the community and school district to support one direction. It took a lot of conversation and a lot of ups and downs to get to this point on a big project.”

After so much conversation and work, O’Donnell says excitement is starting to build around the project and should only get more intense as its completion date draws nearer.

Tim Jones of Massaro Construction Management Services LLC has been overseeing the project as construction manager. In each of the four pods, Jones explains, a large communal space will sit between classrooms to allow teachers and students to work in groups. With movable tables and chairs, different classes can meet during the day to learn together.

“It’s a large building, but if you learn the footprint it’s not hard to navigate,” Poprik says. With graphics on the wall to highlight what part of the building students are in, it should be a piece of cake to get around, he adds.

From wall-sized windows everywhere imaginable around the building, natural light will pour into the space and make it more comfortable. Metal paneling along the building traps heat in the winter and newly designed windows get rid of it in the spring.

All of these designs are part of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, Jones says. LEED certifies buildings for certain comfortability and energy-efficiency standards. Jones says the building will be gold-rated and was designed to enable the natural world around the building to play a part in its functionality.

All-new mechanical systems with climate control in each pod, air intake ducts to keep fresh air in the building, and an array of other 21st-century luxuries will fill the building.

In January, work will begin in earnest on the old South Building to the rear of the new structure, a phase that will include gyms, performing arts spaces, offices, and a fitness center.

Part of the North Building will be razed and new space for the Delta Program and a district kitchen will be constructed beginning in June. That work is expected to be completed in the summer of 2019.

With construction ongoing as classes are in session, “the biggest challenge is working around the kids,” Jones says. Working around the construction has been a challenge for those in the school as well. 

“When one of the largest cranes you’ve ever seen in person is lifting air-conditioning units onto the roof and it’s a sunny day outside, kids will probably be distracted,” O’Donnell says.

The winter deadline becomes crucial for the district as the next phase begins in January. Winter break will be extended to two weeks instead of the usual one week off. During this time, the district will be working to get everything moved into the new school on time.

“Every day is a challenge when you’re dealing with construction projects,” Poprik says. With more than 100 workers involved daily, coordinating the activities of construction teams and school life has been a big challenge, but with only months left until the process moves on, the people leading it are optimistic.

“This is the fruit of that work,” Poprik says.

“It’s exciting to see it come to fruition,” O’Donnell says. “We’re very fortunate to have the support of the community.”

James Turchick, a Town&Gown intern, is a senior journalism major at Penn State.




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