Building blocks falling into place as Taconic High School takes shape

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PITTSFIELD — From its cutting-edge boiler room to the plants that will grow on the rooftop, the new Taconic High School will catch up city students and teachers with the times.

Yellow tape, staging and steel abounded during a tour of the most comprehensive construction project the city has seen in decades.

"It is probably the largest public construction project to happen in Pittsfield, maybe since PHS was built in the 1930s," Superintendent Jason McCandless said while walking up a staircase in the new building, which is 56 percent complete.

Dave Deforest, construction manager for Gilbane Building Co., said his people are hard at work on the exterior of the building, getting it ready to hold in the temporary heat sources they're readying for the winter. Jim Moran, project manager and Skanska USA Building Inc.'s site representative, said the HVAC system is nearly complete.

The project is advancing on schedule for teachers to begin moving in next summer, and for students to enter the new classrooms next fall.

People first started pitching the idea about a dozen years ago, and so the enthusiasm is palpable, McCandless said.

"It's been a long time coming," he said. "People really are excited about it."

And he said enrollment is beginning to reflect that excitement. Current enrollment is at 725 students, he said, which is "one of the biggest in years."

About 25 percent of that new enrollment is coming from out of the district, he said.

"I think there's some buzz with the kids about wanting to be here," he said.

McCandless said he'd like to see more kids from South County come to Taconic to fill their vocational needs.

"We now feel we have the facilities and programming to be your vocational school of choice," he said. "We really hope that for a lot of those communities, we can serve that role."

If that starts happening, he said, the district is prepared to explore busing needs that would come with that territory.

Mountains ripe with autumn splendor roll their way around the $121 million project, which will feature about a dozen vocational programs in addition to traditional academic ones.

On the academic side, the building's laboratories will boast some of the biggest upgrades, including breakout space for small group works. Smart projectors will line the building, which will have three elevators and will be much more accessible to students with a range of physical abilities.

"This really, truly brings us up to the building we need to have for everyone in the community," McCandless said.

School leaders are deciding on classroom structure, McCandless said, but are seriously considering an "academy model" that would organize students by area of study rather than grade level.

McCandless said the school targets some key sectors of the local economy: advanced manufacturing, health sciences, mixed metals and electrical. The school will also train young carpenters and cosmetologists, whose local workforces are trending older.

Alongside a health science classroom will be a mock hospital bed with an observation area behind it.

The culinary program will hit another key area, training students to fill jobs in local tourism and hospitality.

"We see this is as a vital, vital part of what we're doing," McCandless said, looking at the culinary lab's walk-in cooler and freezer.

The hum of the temporary generator set the backdrop for mechanical noises of all types, as tradesmen busily went about their work. The project managers got excited at the sight of the main electrical and boiler rooms.

"This is like the heart of the building," Deforest said.

It might seem like a simple thing, but students and teachers who've had ceiling tiles fall on them and seen school canceled because of heating malfunctions won't soon take it for granted.

The community spared no detail when it came to planning the students' learning spaces.

"We had a color subcommittee that met for over a year," McCandless said. "Each floor has its own color scheme."

Once the new building is complete, the current one will come down.

"It's great for education, but it's, I think, one of the building blocks for economic development," McCandless said.

Moran said he got a kick out of a student who called wanting to know how wide the lockers will be — those in the current school are only 6 inches wide, he said, so students can't fit their backpacks.

"When we went to school, we didn't have backpacks," Deforest said.

Moran said the new lockers will be 15 inches wide.

To which McCandless said, laughing: "It's one more win for students."

Reach Amanda Drane at 413-496-6296, or @amandadrane on Twitter.


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