South

Plymouth school opens with focus on vocations as well as academics

Photos by Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

PLYMOUTH — High school students in south Plymouth had added excitement to start the new school year, as their new, $110 million school opened for classes on Aug. 30.

It’s not just any new high school. Billed as a “comprehensive high school” offering a rare blend of courses for its 1,088 students, Plymouth South incorporates a robust vocational-technical component with an academic college-preparatory program. It is the first comprehensive high school to receive funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, officials said.

The school’s impressive design could be a showcase of what schools in Massachusetts will look like in the future. An open house and ribbon-cutting was held Sept. 14.

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“Both of these [educational] programs just work so well together,” Superintendent of Schools Gary Maestas said in an interview at the new school. He said that professions have changed as technology has advanced, and that today’s students need a new variety of skills.

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“I think the effort was really put out at a significant level to ensure that the design [of the new building] really reflected that belief,” said Maestas. “It’s a fantastic model of a modern educational environment. In my view, all high schools should be like this.”

The new school is also something of a departure from its sister school, Plymouth North High, which has a larger enrollment of 1,275 students but a much smaller vocational program. Plymouth North was rebuilt five years ago at a cost of $84 million. The state school building agency agreed to pay about half of the cost of each school, and voters in the town of about 60,000 residents approved a $199 million debt exclusion override 12 years ago to build them, along with a senior center.

Officials said while Plymouth North was built as a state-approved model school using past successful designs for sustainability and maintenance, Plymouth South was built on a model of “project-based learning,” to blend the vocational and academic programs.

“So instead of a paper-and-pencil exam, it’s ‘Show me what you just learned,’” Maestas said of the type of learning taking place at the school. Projects often have an engineering component, or require students to work in teams.

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Maestas said a school vision committee and Ai3 Architects — the project’s chosen firm, which has completed many state-sanctioned school projects — started planning years before breaking ground. Consultants were brought in from around the country, including New Technology High School in Napa, Calif., a nationally recognized model of project-based learning.

Where other schools may have a vocational wing, Plymouth South put programs near each other, so students blend socially and educationally. The student body is split nearly evenly between the two educational programs, said Maestas.

“And our faculty is not divided,” said school principal James Hanna. “Our academic teachers truly embrace project-based learning. That’s just kind of the feel of this building.”

While Plymouth South has more than a dozen Advanced Placement academic courses, it also has 13 vocational offerings, in fields such as culinary arts, carpentry, medical assisting, auto collision and repair, graphic design, and early education and care. Students on both educational tracks can take elective classes from either program. Students from across the district can apply to the vocational programs.

Enrollment has increased by 85 students since June, according to Hanna, who said some may be returning to the new Plymouth South from charter or private schools in the area.

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The new building measures just over 248,000 square feet, is LEED Silver certified for sustainability, and features large windows to allow light to flood the interior, a priority for the vision committee.

‘Instead of a paper-and-pencil exam, it’s “Show me what you just learned.” ’

Visitors won’t miss its striking, sun-splashed lobby with a grand spiral staircase. Suspended above is a mobile with artwork called “Illumination,” to reflect the school’s “past, present and movement into a bright future,” according to an inscription next to the work.

The cafeteria is filled with natural light, with furniture chosen by students, including outdoor seating for seniors. Nearby is an ATM and branch of Southern Mass Credit Union.

A 675-seat auditorium will stage “Little Women” as its premiere theater production Nov. 17-18.

The gym has two basketball courts, topped by rafters for the school’s championship banners.

Outside, turf fields will be built on the site of the old school still under demolition. Lights will be added to the athletic stadium as well; those projects required voters to approve borrowing an additional $3 million to complete the project.

“Sports are a big deal here. We are not always the greatest team, but everybody likes it,” said Kat Lombardo, a senior giving visitors a tour of the school recently. Games against Plymouth North are especially well-attended, she added.

“It’s great. I love it,” Chris Tozlowski, a senior in the academic program, said of the school. “But I’m still figuring out where everything is.”

“It’s overwhelmingly big, but in a good way,” senior Stephanie Morrow said. “At the old school, for [my] three years, everything was falling apart. You could tell we needed a new school.”

The new classrooms feature large windows, and vocational spaces are spacious with high ceilings for classes such as automotive and home construction.

“I just fell in love with everything about it,” senior Victoria Seamans said of the electrical program she discovered in her freshman observatory class of vocational offerings. The co-op student works at an electrical company while earning school credit.

Increasingly, more students are choosing fields not traditional to their gender, according to administrators. Hanna said that about 13 percent of vocational students were in a nontraditional by gender program, such as automotive, culinary arts, and carpentry for females, or medical assisting for males, at the end of last year.

“Our goal as educators and administrators is how do we keep on changing the whole dynamic of what it means to be an educational institution, because we have to evolve. The kids have evolved. The technology has evolved. The demands in life have evolved,” said Maestas. “I think this building is a building for the future. . . . It’s a building that’s conducive to how we can grow with it over time, and I think the design aspects allow it to be that way.”

Kathy Kurtz Ferrari can be reached at kkferrari219@
gmail.com
.