Easthampton finally opens 21st-century high school

Last modified: Monday, May 20, 2013

EASTHAMPTON – When former longtime Easthampton High School Principal Jeffrey Sealander looks at the city’s old high school just a few hundred yards from the new $39.2 million school on Williston Avenue, he imagines “the way sailors in the Navy must feel when a ship is decommissioned.

“You look at the two buildings side by side and you get a sense of how tired the old one is,” said Sealander, now the school’s athletics director. A member of Easthampton high’s class of 1970, he was principal from 1987 to 1997 and 2004 to 2009.

“It’s a 1960s educational model, compared to the new building that has access to technology that wasn’t even dreamed of then,” Sealander said.

The new high school opens for classes today, the culmination of more than a dozen years of dreaming — and planning — by community, school and municipal leaders. The first school building constructed in Easthampton in more than three decades, it features state-of-the-art technology and classroom space designed to accommodate new modes of learning, administrators say.

A brief ceremony this morning is planned in the new gym to mark the opening of the 110,000-square-foot high school. Mayor Michael A. Tautznik, Superintendent Nancy Follansbee and Building Committee Chairman Michael Buehrle are scheduled to address students before classes begin.

Earlier this month, school officials conducted a VIP tour of the facility for people closely involved with the building project. Students have also been through the building guided by EHS seniors. A community open house is scheduled for Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

On their recent tour, ninth-graders at EHS recorded their first look inside the new three-story brick and steel high school on smartphones to share with friends and family.

“The hallways are a lot wider,” said Cheyenne Horner. She was taking a video of the sunlit Café Commons area just past the main office. “I can’t wait to have lunch here!”

“It’s like a movie set,” classmate Ryan Fleury said to a friend, as they walked across the terrazzo floor and up a set of stairs for a peek at some classrooms.

The building will feel a lot more real this morning, as teachers, staff and Easthampton high’s 470 students begin daily operations there.

Tautznik said he hopes the new high school will make the city more competitive with neighboring districts.

“Easthampton has been negatively affected by school choice,” he said, in an interview last week. Tautznik’s father was on the building committee for the old high school. “This new building is going to have positive benefits on the educational capacity of our system.”

Chuck Conner, owner of Taylor Real Estate and a member of the High School Building Committee, said agents are already including the new building in talking points with prospective homeowners.

“The high school is the flagship — one more thing that’s helping this community overall,” Taylor said. “I just think it’s a tremendous asset.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved an $18 million debt-exclusion override to pay for the city’s portion of the building in 2010. Since then, the project has stayed on schedule and about $3 million under budget, according to project managers. The state is paying 64 percent of construction costs of the new high school, or $25.73 million.

School leaders say it’s not merely the new building that’s notable, but the boost to the curriculum it will provide through building-wide Wi-Fi access, larger classrooms and up-to-date equipment. Twenty-eight new courses have been added to the high school curriculum for next fall, including forensic science, robotics and computer game design.

“Everything about this building is a platform for us to take off to where we want to go,” said EHS Principal Vito Perrone, as he eagerly showed a reporter around the building’s three floors earlier this month. “The old building limited us. Here, it’s just amazing the creativity we can see.”

“We’ve bypassed the 20th century and moved into the 21st,” added Buehrle, who has been involved with the project since 2001 and was also on the tour.

For the past several months, the old high school and the new one have stood side by side, providing a stark contrast. The old building, on the same 8-acre parcel as the new one, will be torn down starting in June after the school year ends.

Among the more striking differences are the “green” design elements of the new building, including solar panels on the roof and sensors that adjust classroom lighting to shifts in daylight.

The Café Commons area contains a “green screen” display that tracks the building’s energy use in real time at the touch of a button. Water fountains have slots for filling reusable bottles and a screen showing how many plastic bottles are saved as a result.

Other new features include:

∎ The small, black box-style theater in the old high school has been replaced by a 376- seat auditorium in the new building with connecting spaces for drama, tech and music classes.

∎ The traditional shop classroom has become a modern fabrications lab, complete with computer design equipment, welding booths and a new three-dimensional printer.

∎ In place of the scattered guidance spaces in the old building, the new high school has counselors located in a single suite on the first floor, with private conference areas and computer stations where students can search for college and career information.

∎ The new high school gym, where graduation ceremonies will be held in June, seats 1,000 spectators — about double that of the old building — and features automatic room dividers, a new climbing wall and a separate locker room for visiting teams.

Perrone said the building design emphasizes flexibility, with classrooms that can be adapted to different uses and “breakout” areas on each floor where teachers can more easily meet and collaborate.

The new building also aims to be more welcoming to parents and other community members he said, by providing meeting space and perhaps at some point, access to a new weight room on the first floor. Details about when and how that access would be granted have yet to be worked out.

Teachers and other staff cite the possibilities offered by such building features as online display boards in every classroom and more space for group projects.

“Morale goes up when you have things to work with,” said guidance department secretary Bonnie LeDoux, a 22-year veteran of EHS. “In the guidance suite, we’ll have space to meet with kids and computers where we can sit down and work with them instead of giving them a list and saying, ‘take this home.’”

City Council member Daniel Rist, who is technical director of the Smith College Theater, volunteered to help design the catwalks, sound system and other technical aspects of the new EHS performance space.

“This is a huge increase of theatrical capability,” said Rist, whose grandchildren will be attending the new high school. “It’s very exciting.”

Still, at a time of tight municipal budgets, Rist said he is concerned about finding the resources to maintain the new high school and address building needs at other city schools.

“It’s difficult for citizens to pay for a new facility and then be asked to pay more,” Rist said. He was referring to voter rejection last fall of a $1.4 million property tax override proposed by the School Department for staff and programs. “That is where the state has really let us down.”

Marin Goldstein, an elementary school parent who was involved in the pro-override campaign, voiced similar worries.

“My biggest concern is what is going to actually fill the new high school,” he said. “When you don’t have the funding to support staff, even the best building won’t be used as it should. Hopefully, we as a community can figure out a solution.”

School Committee member Deborah Lusnia, who was a leader in the successful override campaign for the high school project, said she remains optimistic on that score. “We’re a community that recognizes and values education,” she said. “The pride and the community coming together — that’s what the building brings to mind.”

EHS senior Abigail Edgin, one of the guides for the recent tour by ninth-graders, said she shares that pride, even though she won’t be in the new high school for long.

“We have great teachers who want to be able to do all of this innovative teaching,” she said. “I’m excited about the promise of the new building.”


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy