The columned entrance of the new Natick High School was a bustle of activity on Wednesday, as teachers and students entered the $78.5 million building for the first full day of classes after two years of construction.
“I see everybody smiling,” said Rose Bertucci, principal of Natick High School. “Everybody is so proud and happy and amazed with the brand-new building. It’s a great feeling.”
Bertucci said the first day of school was fairly smooth, minus some minor kinks along the way.
“Our bell system wasn’t working right, but then we flipped a switch and it was all fine,” she said. “But I think everything is going extremely well and very seamlessly.”
The night before classes started, school officials opened the building for the public to tour, receiving more than 1,000 Natick residents, students, and parents eager to see the new school, which sits next to the site of the old high school on West Street. The old school has been demolished, and workers are putting new athletic fields in its place. The fields are expected to be ready in the spring.
The hallways were congested with people all night as families toured the new TV production studio, robotics lab, auditorium, music rooms, library, and dining hall. Parents traveled room to room, stopping to gape at the new architecture and décor, while teenagers anxiously scrambled to map out their class routes and locate new lockers.
Bertucci said the visitors included numerous residents who did not even have children in the school system.
“I had people coming up to me and telling me they don’t mind paying their taxes now,” Bertucci said with a laugh.
State Representative David Linsky, a Natick Democrat and graduate of the school, said the building means more to him than a brand-new facility.
“It’s a reflection of the pride that Natick people have in their community,” he said, adding that he cried the first time he walked into the new school a few months ago. “This is a very important moment in Natick’s history.”
The Massachusetts School Building Authority has provided $38.2 million for the project, which is the agency’s maximum reimbursement, and Natick taxpayers will pay the remaining $40.3 million over 20 years through a tax increase that was approved in 2010.
The first day of school also marks Natick’s first year of providing every student with an Apple laptop for their entire high school tenure, a $2 million effort included in the building’s $78.5 million cost.
“It opens up the world at your desk,” Bertucci said of the program, explaining how students could collaborate with one another for peer editing, and even connect with students at other schools.
Bertucci said the school is still using textbooks this year, but hopes to move to electronic books in the near future as publishing companies put out more titles to keep up with demand.
Even with the laptop initiative, the new high school project came in nearly $10 million under budget, mostly due to favorable borrowing rates and lower construction costs in a down economy, finishing on schedule because of the recent warm winter months, school officials said.
The building, designed by Ai3 Architects of Wayland, is modeled after the blueprint used for new high schools built in Norwood and Plymouth, said William Hurley, director of fiscal and management service for the Natick school district.
Hurley said the town also shaved costs by using preexisting school model drawings.
The new high school, which has about 1,300 students, features an 18,000-square-foot gymnasium with a weight and cardio room and upper-level track; an auditorium with stadium seating for 800; a 97-seat multimedia distance-learning lab; and six preschool classrooms.
The building was also built to conserve energy, with a “smart” air and heating system that automatically adjusts a room’s temperature to match the number of occupants, a roof sporting solar panels and gardens, and a gray-water collection system that is estimated to save 550,000 gallons of water annually.
Students and faculty at the school said the new building will help benefit the town’s education, especially in areas of technology.
During the public tour, Doug Scott, who has taught robotics and information technology in Natick for 10 years, held up a picture of his old classroom — a small, dark room with colorful wires hanging from the ceiling and traversing the entire room.
Scott described his new 2,000-square-foot robotics lab as a clean, positive environment for learning, and said he hoped to attract more students interested in engineering basics, noting that the Natick robotics team has won national competitions for three consecutive years.
“We used to meet in an old hole-in-the-wall in the basement, which is not the easiest environment to be in,” he said. “This is really open, and we have all the tools we need at our fingertips,” he added, opening drawers and showing off new tools with a proud smile.
Students hoping to study TV production will also experience the newest, cutting-edge technology. The new studio boasts professional equipment, a green screen, and a control room connected to the gymnasium and the auditorium for easy broadcast editing.
The production room will serve as a satellite location for Natick Pegasus, the local government access channel, which paid for the high school’s TV studio with funds from Comcast’s contract with the town.
“This is a modern, state-of-the-art facility,” said Randy Brewer, station manager of Pegasus, noting that two full-time workers will also be teaching students and overseeing school broadcasts.
Students said they are also happy with the new building and laptop program. In the 6,500-square-foot library, seniors Katelyn Alcott and Eleni Kovatsis were already using their MacBooks to watch videos and peruse documents.
The two 17-year-olds said while they missed the character of the old high school, they liked how clean, open, and bright the new building is.
“It has a new smell to it,” Alcott said.
Kovatsis, a track runner, said she also looked forward to using the treadmills and indoor track when it rains.
“At the old school, the workout room was just five treadmills in a garage, but only two worked, and if you ran them at the same time, the power went out,” she said.
Bertucci said the new high school’s features are already attracting more students: this spring’s graduating class had 301 students, but the incoming freshman class numbers 390.
“We’re getting the kids who normally would have gone to charter or private schools,” she said.
When asked whether the school can accommodate the increase, Bertucci laughed.
“The more students we have, the more teachers and programs we can offer,” she said. “The more, the merrier.”