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$100m bet for high schools in seven Boston suburbs

Inside the new Methuen High School

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Inside the new Methuen High School

Parents, educators, and taxpayers throughout Boston’s suburbs are betting that $100 million will help their children enter a competitive college or succeed in today’s cutthroat job market.

That’s about the average cost of the seven new or renovated high schools opening in the suburbs at the start of the academic year in late August and early September. They are replacing aging structures dating from the 1970s or earlier that were at the end of their useful lives.

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“We’re really cleaning up a lot of the old schools,” said Jack McCarthy, executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, or MSBA, which provided more than $380 million — around 60 percent of the total cost — for high school construction in Danvers, Dracut, Duxbury, Franklin, Marshfield, Methuen, and Walpole.

The funding bought new buildings that reflect modern design principles and include technology that school officials said would not only boost students’ learning but also maintain security at a time of increased anxiety over school violence. Many of the new high schools will have at least 200 video surveillance cameras, for example, superintendents said.

“The difference between the old high school and the new high school is the new high school is clearly a 21st-century, state-of-the-art building,” said Marshfield Superintendent Scott Borstel.

To cut down on design costs, Marshfield and a number of the other schools used the same blueprints provided by the MSBA. While each school design varied slightly based on its location and unique needs, officials said contractors throughout the state have built off those plans in the past, decreasing the chances of surprises and delays during construction.

“People are taking a hard look at spending heir dollars wisely,” said McCarthy.

The model designs divide the schools into zones that can be opened to the public and academic areas exclusively for students and staff, like separate entrances for theaters and gymnasiums so community members can use those facilities before and after school hours.

In Methuen, where local and state officials decided the old high school was structurally sound enough for a $98.8 million renovation rather than a replacement, Superintendent Judith Scannell is already envisioning student art shows and other events to engage local residents.

“The fine arts building is located away from classes,” said Scannell. “The public can enter into fine arts building so they are not walking through the high school.”

Other school districts did more tweaking.

In Franklin, where all students in the town’s new $103.5 million high school will be assigned a Chromebook — a relatively inexpensive Google-designed laptop — the school library is set to become a hive of activity for tech-savvy students.

“The media center will be the hub of school,” said Superintendent Maureen Sabolinski. “We’ll have traditional stacks with books, but we’re going to have a student-manned technology desk, like a Genius Bar [in a Apple store], with a media center and a café, mirroring a college environment.”

Marshfield’s public access cable station will be housed in the town’s new $101.6 million high school, saving money on rent for studio space and giving students an internship opportunity, said Borstel.

At $101 million, Marshfield High School is one of the costliest renovated schools in the Boston suburbs.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

At $101 million, Marshfield High School is one of the costliest renovated schools in the Boston suburbs.

Employees will enter the studio from a separate entrance. Students and others passing through the doorway between the station and school will need swipe cards that can be programmed to unlock the studio door but none others, a security feature used in most of the schools to separate public and academic zones.

Most of the new schools also have sally port-style main entrances that cordon off visitors in a secure room where they must identify themselves to staff behind a protective screen before they’re buzzed into the main office.

“You have to go through a holding area and speak to someone behind a bank-teller-type of window,” said Duxbury Superintendent Ben Tantillo. “Unfortunately, this is the world we live in today.”

Inside the new schools, the layouts reflect the latest trends in education, officials said.

At Essex Technical High School — a $134.5 million campus in Danvers that merges Essex Agricultural and Technical High School, North Shore Technical High School, and vocational programs from Peabody High School — students will enroll in one of four academies where they’ll attend technical and liberal arts classes together in a distinct cluster of rooms, said Essex Tech Superintendent Dan O’Connell. Students from different academies will mingle, however, in the new school’s three cafeterias.

“The philosophy is to keep the small school environment within a large school,” said O’Connell. “The kids in a geometry class are also in electrical. In electrical, we’re bending conduits. You need to know angles to bend conduits. The kids buy into why they’re learning it.”

All of the superintendents raved about their new science labs.

“The high school labs were deplorable,” said Sabolinski, referring to the old Franklin High. “We designed it with the architect so that the core labs can be used for chemistry, physics, biology, and earth science. We’ll have opportunities to better prepare students for career explorations in the sciences once they’ve had better experiences.”

They also said they were relieved their construction projects were now complete so they could get on with their primary mission of educating students.

After all, construction, which usually took a few years for each school, was only the final stage of their projects.

Before anyone could break ground, school officials needed to recognize the need for a new building, ask school committee and town meeting members to appropriate money for studies, apply to the MSBA for matching funds, and, finally, convince taxpayers to raise local property taxes, often above the 2.5 percent cap on levy increases, to pay for the new building.

“There were a lot of night meetings with a variety of community and public groups,” said Tantillo. “Quite honestly, we were probably out three nights a week for a whole year.”

He was thankful that work paid off in 2012 when voters approved the $128 million school proposal and the MSBA agreed to fund 45 percent of the project.

“It was clear that people were ready for an updated and modern facility,” said Tantillo.

Franklin High School was under construction in July.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

Franklin High School was under construction in July.

John Dyer can be reached at johnjdyerjr@gmail.com.
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