From sock hops in the gymnasium to her time as a majorette captain and in the classroom with her friends, Paula Coffey compared her years at East Bridgewater High School to the idyllic ones depicted on the television series “Happy Days.”
Coffey was a member of the class of 1961, the first four-year group to graduate from the school on Plymouth Street, back when rooting for the team meant rooting for the Easties (now the Vikings).
Change over the past five decades was at the core of Coffey’s commencement message Sunday to the class of 2013 — the last group to graduate from the high school before it is razed, making way for the opening of a new $77 million high school in late August.
“I have a very sentimental value and just many, many wonderful memories of my four years of school at that high school,” Coffey said. “It was the place where I met most of my best friends.”
Although disappointed that the 56-year-old building will be demolished, Coffey and many of her classmates are grateful the school will serve one more important purpose before it’s gone — as an emergency-training facility for the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council SWAT team.
“They’ll blow open all the doors and do all kinds of stuff,” said Superintendent of Schools Susan T. Cote. “The demolition company takes over Sept. 1. We’ll have the last two weeks of August where the old building will be empty, and that’s when the training will take place.”
It was a small window of opportunity and a rare chance that East Bridgewater Police Chief John E. Cowan said he couldn’t pass up.
“When you train in a school you want to be careful. . . . To be able to use a school building where you’re not concerned if there’s any damage done — it’s just a great opportunity for some realistic training,” Cowan said. “You take the officers that are trained in the breaching of locked doors, they can actually use their equipment on real stuff, the real types of locks.
“It’s one thing to tell somebody how to do stuff, but to carry the equipment and actually do it, it’s a far better training for police officers.”
The council, which receives funding from the US Department of Homeland Security, has members from 28 neighboring police departments who undergo special training for high-risk operations, such as hostage-taking or mass shootings. There are three members of the East Bridgewater Police Department on the council, Cowan said.
Cowan credits the East Bridgewater School Committee for giving the group, headed by Mattapoisett Police Chief Mary Lyons, the OK to use the building.
“Ever since Columbine, [school emergency training] has been a concern of any chief, any parent, teacher and school committees,” he said. “One of the things you do worry about in a small town like us, we would never be able to field our own tactical team. . . . By banding together we’re able to provide this service and it’s really worked out well.”
Surveillance cameras at the school, which feed directly to the Police Department, will remain in place for the training, allowing participating officers to review their tactics, said Cote, the school superindendent. Before demolition, the cameras will be removed and installed at Central Elementary and Gordon Middle schools, she said.
District officials opted to build a new high school after the current one was put on probation in 2010 by the accrediting group New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which said the building lacked the electrical spine to add the technology that would bring the school into the 21st century, Cote said.
A feasibility study indicated it would have cost just $1 million less to retrofit the old building than to build a new one. By choosing new construction, the district was able to receive 65 percent cost reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority .
The new high school — which will house grades 7 through 12 — and the new football field will be ready for the start of classes in late August. New athletic fields will be built on the land where the current school sits, but won’t be ready for another two years, Cote said.
At Sunday’s commencement, Coffey presented graduating class officers a plaque on behalf of the class of 1961 to commemorate the high school. “From the first class to the last, for continuation of fine education and lasting friendships,” she said. The plaque will be hung in the new school’s library.
Using the school for SWAT training is a far cry from “Happy Days,” but Coffey said it’s practical.
“It’s going to be torn down anyway,” she said. “It’s sad, but we’ve been seeing the new school go up and it looks beautiful. Time marches on.”