Connecticut Education

Developing a Cohesive Strategy Can be the Key to Project Success

Use of a light well in the Main Street corridor drives daylight into the heart of the school; the use of interior windows allows light to be borrowed from hallways. / © JCJ Architecture

by James E. LaPosta Jr.

When JCJ Architecture was selected by the city of Haverhill to undertake the feasibility phase for the Caleb Dustin Hunking School, we knew that significant structural issues in the existing building had caused the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to prioritize the project. With short-term repairs in place, the district embarked on an initiative to renovate or replace the school.

Working with districts during the MSBA project feasibility process is always fluid and informative. In the case of the Hunking School, we worked with Mayor James Fiorentini, Superintendent James Scully, and their teams to ensure the due diligence requirements of MSBA would be met, and we began to understand the city’s dynamics and constraints.

With few options for relocation to another site and significant structural deficiencies in the existing building, the team realized that construction of a new school on the existing site was the only reasonable option. Through our visioning sessions with teachers, parents, and administrators and our dialogue with boards and elected officials, an approach began to take shape. Knowing the public had not supported a school construction bond since the late 1990s and understanding the existing municipal debt was soon due to be retired, the team’s efforts began to coalesce around a strategy of maximizing function in new construction.

In collaboration with the client and owner’s project manager, Nv5, we developed key planning principles:

  • Build new/tear down — keeping the existing school in operation because of the lack of swing space.
  • Public approval — setting a cap of $60 million for total project cost. This equated to the amount of debt the city was retiring, enabling the school project to occur without an increased burden to taxpayers.
  • Maximize the site — organizing the school as a three-story structure enabled us to expand the school from grades 6-8 to grades K-8. This expansion alleviated overcrowding and code issues at other schools and was highly attractive to the public.
  • Simplicity — developing a building that would lend clarity to its function, provided ease of construction, and enable effective budget control.
  • Communication — engaging the community and stakeholders around the development of options in an open and transparent way allowed the public to provide feedback and become part of the project’s formulation.

When the preferred option was placed before the public for vote, it was approved by a resounding 3-to-1 margin. We credit the development of these key strategic tenets as well as the leadership and engagement of the key stakeholders. As the project progressed from design and into construction with Shawmut Construction as CM, this theme of teamwork remained in place and was a significant factor that allowed the Caleb Dustin Hunking School to open three months ahead of schedule and $1 million under the anticipated budget.

Some of the project’s features that helped to win public support include:

  • 1,005 student population is broken into two smaller groups, upper school (6-8) and lower school (K-5), each school is in a separate wing with its own drop-off and entry.
  • Subdividing upper and lower school into clusters, three in each school for a total of six. In each are common areas that act as a center of each cluster. They provide opportunity for a variety of learning activities including team projects and small group instruction.
  • Every space is a learning space. In addition to the common areas in each cluster, the Main Street corridor and school entries provided support for projects.
  • The structure and exterior building character were simplified in order to focus the budget on the interior environment, furniture, and technology — all aspects that would significantly influence the educational experience.

Today, students from the existing school have relocated to the new school, which is now being demolished in order to make way for playfields. In September, students K-5 will transition to the school at the beginning of the new school year.

Jim LaPosta