DALTON — Dalton has a new Main Street. That’s what construction crews are calling the long and spacious expanse that stretches south inside the new regional high school taking shape.
“This will be the central artery, the social life of the school,” said Jim Moran of Skanska USA Building, the company hired to manage the project. “We like to think it fits with our community.”
The space reaches all the way to the back of the new Wahconah Regional High School and was abuzz with crews during a recent tour — from a main entrance to be sheathed with a curtain of bullet-resistant glass, past future administrative offices on the right, the fitness center on the left, and the wide stairs with stadium-style seating at the heart of the soon-to-be Student Commons, where students will interact and gather over lunch at a “servery,” not what Principal Aaron Robb calls the “chow lines” of the old school.
There are even “clouds” floating above this indoor Main Street, the construction term for white ceiling structures suspended by aircraft wire that will mask sprinkler system pipes.
At more than 60 percent complete, the school continues to echo with the sound of tools as crews work feverishly to get the Central Berkshire Regional School District’s new $72.72 million prize ready for use this fall, even as the 60-year-old current Wahconah soldiers through its final spring.
“We have a heck of a team,” said Tom Callahan, co-chair of the Wahconah School Building Committee, who joined the tour along with Rich Peters, of Hinsdale, the other co-chair.
“We’re really proud of how it’s coming together. It’s such a community effort,” said Superintendent Leslie Blake-Davis.
At some point, residents of the seven-town district will get a chance to see what their $41.33 million local investment, to be paid over many years to come, has purchased. (The remainder of the cost is being reimbursed by the state.) The district narrowly approved the project in April 2019, in a 1,785-1,697 vote.
Until then, here is a capsule description of notable features of the new school as described by Robb, Moran and other officials on a walk-through:
HIGH-TECH AUDITORIUM: For a time, the project considered salvaging technology from the old Wahconah. But, advances in how spaces like this are lighted, and how theatrical productions are staged, ruled that out.
Remember those wobbly spotlights that tracked actors’ movements in student productions?
In the new, wood-lined auditorium, its sides sculpted for acoustic quality, devices worn by actors will keep spots trained on them automatically, as a production crew works from the school’s first control booth.
Since the old auditorium was created more than a half-century ago, almost everything is different, said Scott Drumm, project manager for Barr & Barr, the construction company hired to build Wahconah.
“Everything has changed,” Drumm said, including how the stage is rigged and how it can be accessed by students.
“The ability to get on and off the stage is far less awkward,” said Robb, the principal. “This is a game changer for our performing arts.”
Behind the stage, the school will have dressing rooms, as the space transitions to the whole range of performing arts instruction.
“It’s more focused on students and creativity. It’s more student-friendly in terms of the arts, drama and music,” said Blake-Davis. “It’s really about being for them to be as creative as possible.”
The auditorium will seat 525, slightly more than the school’s enrollment. Robb expects that the space will be popular for community use.
“Building request forms are going to start coming in,” he said.
A NEW KIND OF GUIDANCE: The administrative space just off the main door includes a Student Support Center with its own entrance that will respond to a variety of needs, from counseling to nursing and guidance. Students also will come here for college and career advice.
“If you came in here on a regular day, you would definitely see students down in here,” Robb said. “Whatever support a student needs, whether it’s academic, social, emotional or physical, the Student Support Center is where that happens.”
Speaking of doors, the outer lobby area, encased in glass and looking in to the school’s Main Street, will serve as a waiting area for parents and visitors, with a control point providing security before they are allowed in.
FLEXIBLE LEARNING SPACES: Forget the days of each Wahconah teacher having a room of their own (for the most part), with scant space for impromptu learning. The new watchword, for Robb, is the “pod.”
Classrooms are clustered, in different places, around what he and others are calling “collaborative breakout spaces.” There still will be desks, but the new school offers places like these for spontaneous work that spills outside classrooms, with a layout reminiscent of modern medical offices or colleges.
In one pod visited, that new kind of space sits at the hub, with doors to classrooms around the edges. It’s much more than a hall. The space will be equipped with different kinds of tables (chair height, as well as stool height), with a 75-inch, flat-panel TV and a separate whiteboard nearby.
“Learning is not going to just be contained in the classrooms, it’s going to spill out into these spaces,” Robb said. The presence of teachers nearby, if not in the hubs themselves, will help ensure that these are learning spaces, he said.
CLASSROOMS THAT MORPH: Even within classrooms, flexibility is the watchword. A partition can be brought automatically to break a seminar room into two spaces, for example. That’s important in a relatively small district like Central Berkshire, Robb said.
“Aaron, as an educator, I’m drooling,” Blake-Davis said, surveying the room.
Robb already is scheduling use of these spaces for the fall.
“We have class sizes that vary greatly. We have the most flexibility,” Robb said. An Advanced Placement statistics class of seven students, he said, will convene in half of a seminar space.
In terms of technology, every general education classroom has a teaching wall with a flat-screen TV panel, a whiteboard and a tack board.
AN INSTITUTION THAT ISN’T, QUITE: Banks of lockers are going up — and nothing says “I’m a school” quite like a low wall of blue metal cabinets.
But, on one long hall on the second floor, across from lockers, you might think you are in an airport. The men’s and women’s bathrooms have no doors, as in airports and other high-traffic public areas. Instead, bathrooms are reached around tiled corners.
Downstairs off Main Street, there is seating in a variety of public spaces, including across from the “servery” that will be reached, at mealtimes, through a retracted overhead door.
Blake-Davis says spaces like this are more akin to dining services in colleges — and she is happy to provide an early taste, for students, of what that is like.
Kitchen hoods just were installed. A big walk-in cooler is complete.
“The ‘servery’ is a big change from the school,” Robb said. “Our [old] school was probably built by guys that had just gotten out of World War II or Korea. They set up chow lines, basically. This is more of a college-style ‘servery.’ That’s a huge difference. It’s a lot less institutional.”
And forget water fountains. Even the old Wahconah switched some years ago to water bottle filling stations. A big wall along Main Street will hold living plants, with self-watering irrigation.
SCIENCE GETS ITS DUE: When taking people through the old school, ahead of the April 2019 vote to authorize this project, Robb always stopped by science classrooms. Science, at the time the old Wahconah went up, involved computers with punch cards. The school was built in 1961, a year before astronaut John Glenn climbed into Friendship 7 for his historic spaceflight.
The new school has five science labs, not just one. They have been built to meet specific instructional needs. The physics lab even has an I-beam that will hang below the ceiling, at a teacher’s request, to enable some experiments.
FILE “LIBRARY” UNDER YESTERDAY: Many students today carry, in their phones, access to more information than could be found in a thousand versions of the old Wahconah library.
In the new school, Main Street leads back to a second-floor Learning Commons, another space that contemporary designs favor for schools.
This commons will be wired to the world’s information portals — and even offer some books. But, it also is a sort of cathedral to inquiry, with enormous windows looking out across athletics fields to the gentle slope of Day Mountain. There is another little mountain out there, too, but it’s going to come down: a mound of topsoil saved from beneath the new building’s footprint — to be redistributed around the grounds after the old school comes down. The date for that demolition isn’t yet known.
Even short of completion, the light-drenched space of the Learning Commons feels inspiring.
“In my opinion, this is where it’s at, right here,” Robb said of the Learning Commons. “This place tells the whole story.”
Blake-Davis stands looking about the space — it seems to open up and out, thanks to the glass to be installed — to infinity.
“This building was created around students and student learning,” she said. “It draws the environment in, and you can really appreciate it more.”
A BIGGER GYM, AND WORKING LOCKER ROOMS: The state encouraged the district to scale back plans for its auditorium. Not so with the gym. The new gym will be 11,000 square feet in size, compared with 9,300 for the old one.
“Here, it’s a total game changer,” said Robb, using a phrase he likes, and one with special meaning when it comes to athletics.
“We’re now going to be able to put a curtain down in the middle and have two full-size [basketball] courts on either side,” he said. “The main court will run east to west. But, the two practice courts will run north to south. Now, we can run varsity and JV basketball practice at the same time.”
Before, the school had to book use of the gym at Nessacus Regional Middle School.
Two sets of bleachers will come out from the north and south walls around the center court area. A batting cage will sit up near the ceiling, ready to be lowered for use.
Off to the east side of the gym, a room will hold weights for training. And nearby, work is wrapping up on two complete locker rooms, with bathrooms and showers, a feature lacking in the old school. Off to the east side of the gym, a room will hold weights for training.
WORTH A MENTION: R.I.P. the old auto shop. The state would not support that financially, so, it’s gone. In its place, to an extent, is a new home repair and maintenance program. Robb said 70 students already are signed up. … A Life Skills Room will include a mock-up of a small apartment, to help special education students develop skills of independent living. … Just off Main Street, as people enter, a large area to the left will include fitness equipment. Robb recalls that when he and others presented plans for the school in district towns, people applauded that. “People love the idea of the prominence of fitness for that purpose.”