In what Mayor Joseph A. Curatone is calling a “bittersweet moment,” Somerville leaders are celebrating the recent opening of the new $256 million high school even as they lament that due to the pandemic, the school’s students may have limited use of the building this year.
Built on the Highland Avenue site of the old high school, the 396,000-square-foot building includes everything from a 750-seat auditorium and multilevel media center to a college-style lecture hall, a restaurant and bistro, a rooftop courtyard, 12 specialized learning spaces for career and technical students, 13 science labs, three art rooms, and a fully renovated gym.
“It’s an incredible accomplishment for the community,” Curtatone said, citing the support residents gave the project when they approved the city’s first debt exclusion — a property tax increase for the length of time it takes to pay off the debt — in 2016. “They understood what was at stake here. Our kids deserve modern facilities that will allow us to lock in all the potential of 21st-century learning.”
But following the March 4 school opening, officials acknowledged some of the excitement of seeing the building in operation was lessened by the possibility that high school students may not have much chance to enjoy the building this year.
The school opened six months later than planned, in part due to pandemic-related construction delays, And since the district needs to house some elementary school students in the high school as part of a citywide shift to partial in-person learning, plans currently call for high school students to continue taking classes remotely through the end of the school year — except shop class for senior and some junior career and technical students.
“We imagined opening the school to our high school students when classes started last September, but the pandemic robbed us,” Curtatone said.
City officials said high school students might yet return to the building if circumstances change, such as a decision by the state to require high schools to resume in-person learning, though many details would need to be addressed.
School Superintendent Mary Skipper said she has particular sympathy for members of the class of 2021, who “lived with the constraints of this project their whole careers.” She added, though, that all high school students will have access to the learning labs and athletic facilities, and the school is seeking other ways to bring seniors into the building.
Despite COVID-19, school construction has proceeded across the state. As of February, there were 45 projects in either final design or construction, and most were not reporting delays, according to Matt Donovan, director of administration and operations for the Massachusetts School Building Authority. He said some had even been expedited with students learning remotely.
Also in this region, the Kennedy Middle School in Natick opened in January, and a new Saugus Middle and High School opened in 2020. Under construction are high schools in Arlington, Brookline, Lowell, Middleborough, Sharon, and Waltham; middle and high schools in Belmont and the Pentucket Regional School District, and middle schools in Framingham and Weymouth.
Skipper said the Somerville project is “transformative” for the overall community.
“Somerville High School has such a wonderful tradition and legacy, but the staff and students were in a building they had frankly outgrown,” she said of the former school, portions of which dated to 1895.
“The staff was yearning for a school in which they could collaborate with one another … and really create an interdisciplinary world for the students that could prepare them for 21st-century learning,” she said, a vision that the new school makes possible.
As an example, Skinner said the school’s career and technical areas are located throughout the building, instead of in one wing, allowing for stronger connections between those and academic programs. Music and art spaces also have been designed to encourage collaboration. And by making such facilities as the lecture hall and the restaurant available to the public, officials hope to link the school to the community, benefiting students and residents.
“The layout makes ... you really feel like you are part of the community,” Skinner said.
The six-story building, which sits atop Central Hill between City Hall and the public library, was designed for 1,590 students, including 1,515 from the high school and 75 students from the city’s alternative middle/high school, until now housed at another location.
The construction project — the largest in the city’s history — was carried out with $118.3 million in state funds and approximately $137.7 million from the city, $130.3 million of which came from the debt exclusion. While most of the school is new construction, some portions of the old building — notably the auditorium and field house — underwent major renovations and have been incorporated into the new building. The 1895 section will be converted to city offices.
School Committee chair Andre Green recalled that his first vote on the committee five years ago was to approve the education plan for the future new high school. “Going from there to it being open is amazing to see,” he said.
“Somerville High School is the best urban high school in the Commonwealth. But for years it was doing that despite the limitations it had to overcome. So I’m excited to see our great teachers be able to do their work in a building that assists them, rather than hinder them.”
From the beginning. the project faced daunting challenges, according to Richard E. Raiche, Somerville’s director of infrastructure and asset management.
“We were building essentially on the same site as the old high school ... so there was always very limited space,” he said, adding that the site itself is hilly and that the project had to be coordinated with nearby work on the MBTA Green Line Extension.
Contractors also faced the difficulty of constructing the new school while the old one remained in operation, which required the work to be done in phases and installing temporary modular units on site. The project also encountered unexpected delays, first from the discovery of asbestos that needed removal, and later when COVID-19 struck.
“The pandemic hit us at a critical stage of construction,” Raiche said. “The city, the contractor, and the consultants had to learn how to continue with construction during a pandemic, how to keep all the tradespeople safe. That was a tremendous learning experience.”
The building is now substantially finished, but some project work, notably completion of renovations to the auditorium and construction of a soccer field, still are underway.
The school is being occupied gradually under a phased plan that began with high needs special education students, with other special needs students, English language learners, junior and senior career and technical students, and children from three elementary schools whose buildings do not meet COVID-19 safety standards (some will occupy modular units).
For Curtatone, who recently announced he is not seeking reelection this fall, the high school project may be a highlight of his 18-year tenure, during which the city has also seen the creation of Assembly Row, the revitalization of Union Square, and the ongoing Green Line Extension.
Reflecting on the changes Somerville has undergone during his tenure, Curtatone said a city always welcoming of immigrants has become even more “diverse and compassionate.” He said it has also become a national model in showing how a community can “lead with its values.”
Curtatone said one of those values is the need to accompany brick-and-mortar development with investments in a city’s “human infrastructure.”
“The high school is just another example of how we’ve done that collectively,” he said.
SCHOOL BUILDING PROJECTS IN GREATER BOSTON
Numerous middle and high school building projects are under construction in Greater Boston. Others were recently completed, while some are in design stages.
Projects in construction
▪ $343.4 million renovation and expansion of Lowell High School ($210 million from the Massachusetts School Building Authority)
▪ $295.2 million renovation and expansion of Belmont Middle and High School ($78 million from the state authority)
▪ $146.3 million new Pentucket Regional Middle and High School ($52.8 million from the state authority)
▪ $290.9 million new Arlington High School ($83.4 million from the state authority)
▪ $372.4 million new Waltham High School ($234.2 million from the state authority)
▪ $101 million new Middleborough High School ($42 million from the state authority)
▪ $97.9 million new Framingham Fuller Middle School ($37.2 million from the state authority)
▪ $164.2 million renovation and expansion of Weymouth Chapman Middle School ($57.3 million from the state authority)
▪ $163 million new Sharon High School ($50 million from the state authority)
▪ Approximately $236 million new Brookline High School (no funding from state authority)
Projects completed in 2021
▪ $256 million renovation and expansion of Somerville High School ($118.3 million from the state authority)
▪ $105.5 million new Natick Kennedy Middle School ($36.5 million from the state authority)
Projects completed in 2020
▪ $160.7 million new Saugus Middle and High School ($62.8 million from the state)
Projects completed in fall 2019
▪ $144.9 million new Minuteman High School ($43.9 million from the state authority)
▪ $121 million new Stoughton High School ($50.5 million from the state authority
▪ $176 million new Billerica Memorial High School ($71.2 million from the state authority)
▪ $82.6 million renovation and expansion of Braintree East Middle School ($40.4 million from the state authority)
▪ $84.9 million renovation and expansion of Blue Hills Regional Technical High School ($42.9 million from the state authority)
Projects in final design
▪ New Braintree South Middle School
Projects in schematic design
▪ Northeast Metro Regional Vocational High School; type of project to be determined
▪ New Stoneham High School
SOURCES: Massachusetts School Building Authority; municipalities
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.