As the spring transitions into summer in Peabody, staff and students alike look out the windows at the green grass dreaming several weeks into the future when the calendar will reach the final day of school and release them all into break. At the Higgins Middle School a different feeling of anticipation boils beneath the surface in everyone except the eighth graders, not for summer, but fall. A new school awaits in late August.
Every day Principal Todd Bucey gets to exit the school and drive by what will soon be the shining gem of Peabody, the new Higgins Middle School. The “Higgins” name currently infamously associated with one of the most over-utilized, under-renovated, and broken down school buildings in the state; will now be placed onto a state-of-the-art facility next door with Bucey himself as its first principal.
Since 2014 Bucey and the Higgins staff have seen construction progress from the upstart bulldozing of the football field on the hill to the foundational work to a three story building rising about the current middle school next door. The building has approached its completion and this summer preparation will begin for the new school’s first year in 2016-17.
Bucey doesn’t plan to change much in terms of scheduling, structure, and function at the new school besides some differences in gym class sizes, new culinary courses, and the return of the Panthers cluster with the other 14 (five in each grade) but it will be a transition. Between new technology, classroom tools, and even new amenities as basic as air conditioning a great deal of training will be required throughout the summer months so everybody knows how to take advantage of all that the incredible new Higgins offers.
Until now, due to construction restrictions many haven’t been able to get a first hand look at the new Higgins besides Bucey, the project manager, and some city officials. We at The Tanner Times were fortunately welcomed in for a visit alongside the principle and house master Deborah Gigante.
Gigante was overflowing with excitement as we walked across the street, through the fences, and into the construction zone alongside the project manager Rob who has worked closely with the architecture team and Bucey making for a smooth process. As we entered the walkway that connects the administrative wing of the building and the student corridors we were instantly struck with amazement. Compared to the old school that countless students have strolled through over three years full of complaints about its issues, this place was a whole new world.
Everything was new; 21st century, polished, and pristine. Glass windows let in natural light from every corner and the first sight upon walking in was a massive courtyard with beautiful designs and an array of plants and bushes.
Big, beige lockers lined the walls as we traveled through hallways towards a stairway where Rob led us up to the third floor where the sixth grade will reside. 7th graders are set to roam the second floor. Eighth graders, spending just one year there before graduating onto Peabody High, will step right on to the first floor. As with the old school, there will be certain locations where each “cluster” remains for their core classes and other areas where exploratories will be held. In terms of square feet the new school nearly matches the old one, custom designed to fit the academic structure in place there, however this building is more vertical as the old one was horizontal.
The first stop was a basic classroom, but not a simple one by any means. The wide open space was fitted with lights that adjust to the brightness in the room, glass windows that let in an array of natural light themselves, a smooth rug as the floor’s surface, as well as a white board in the front with touch screen capabilities. Like a smartboard without the board itself; teachers will be able to automatically draw, cue up websites, and instruct with their own fingertips. Far from the days of light projectors and markers next door.
Then came a science lab completely fitted with enough cabinets to fit every element on the periodic table, rows of sinks, and countless draws that will be filled with equipment needed for hands-on scientific work right in the classroom. Each room we entered, which weren’t even filled with all their miscellaneous items yet, brought more joy and satisfaction into Bucey and Gigante’s faces. They’ve overseen the process from their earliest days in their roles as principal and housemaster and now the dream is finally coming to reality.
The third floor view of the courtyard was incredible, a visit to the housemaster office and teacher lounge brought debate on furniture location, and then came the two most stunning features of the new school; its cafeteria and auditorium.
A wide, open and extravagant library led to another stairway down into the massive cafeteria which was about to be polished. It was fitted with a walk-in service area where students can walk directly in from the passageway from the student wing before exiting towards the seats.
Next door was the auditorium which had the overwhelming feel of a professional theater complete with an upper projection room, catwalks, an array of lighting, and huge rows of seats. The biggest question in my head was what could possibly be done with all these amenities? Could the high school even make use of these incredible resources?
From there we moved on to the gym which was just completed with its final coat of paint. The design was impeccable; a light hardwood theme mixed with baby blue and yellow imprints that made the side courts barely visible under the light compared to the main full court. It put the high school’s gray, rubber-esqe floor to shame.
Before making the sad trot back to the old Higgins, which is living out its last months next to its new masterpiece next door, we came across the main office directly connected to the cafeteria and the culinary rooms new to the middle school. It was a throwback trip traveling back to the infamous school that I couldn’t wait to escape in 2012 but also a sign of an incredibly bright future for an administration that has had to deal with the issues associated with an old, inept building.
All in all the new school signifies an educational revolution into the 21st century at Higgins. Each student will have chrome books and access to an unprecedented amount of information and technology. The whole building process has progressed quickly, smoothly, and under budget. For that the city, Bucey, and construction team will have plenty to celebrate this summer as the school prepares for its opening events.
Before departing, Bucey and I had a chance to discuss the process of getting a new Higgins and finally reaching this point where the move into it is finally becoming a reality:
Bobby Manning: Problems with the original Higgins?
Todd Bucey: “I’ve been involved with the project since the beginning. When I became principal in 2009, one of the first things that I was part of was selecting the project manager. Datalist, who is the team that Rob works for, they’re our project managers. They are our representatives to the project. It has been my entire principalship that I’ve been part of it. At the beginning it was repair; the windows were going to be fixed or replaced, the HVAC system was going to be replaced, it was going to be handicap accessible and title nine compliant. Then that switched at some point over the first year or so to a renovation; keeping the existing building, adding on parts to it, while keeping the structure of it. Then during the end of Mayor Bonfanti and when Mayor Bettencourt was coming on board, some of the relationships that they had with some people in the state allowed it to turn into a new building project. So Mayor's Bonfanti and Bettencourt, they were both pretty vocal in getting us a new school...Every room, it seems leaks. There’s water from the ceilings and walls, it’s certainly outlived its stay.”
Note: Steve Grossman MSBA toured building and it went from a renovation to a new school project. Senator Berry and Joyce Spiliotis were in wheelchairs and experienced the difficulty in moving first hand. Berry was even stuck in a lift.
B.M.: When did the project transition from renovations to a whole new school?
T.B.: “Probably somewhere around 2011...that it became officially a new school. It was very exciting to know that we were going to be part of a new school project. Originally they were considering doing a model school, they don’t really do those anymore, but at the time they had them and you would pick an actual design that’s already in place like a cookie cutter and you could make some adjustments to it. But that would be the building, it’d be cheaper, it’d take less time but because we’re such a big middle school there were no models that would fit our needs. So we were going to need to do some high school model that was redesigned to be our model and that didn’t work out so that’s when we found out it was going to be custom designed and we were working with Denisco. To design the building from scratch that was very exciting.”
B.M.: What has your relationship with the company been throughout the project?
T.B.: “I don’t really know what I expected but they have included me in everything. The project manager and their team is excellent, the architects are outstanding, the general contractor. Part of every single step of it, just today they approached me about bleacher training, how to work the bleachers. It’s little minute things like that where we’ve been part of everything. From furniture to colors to pretty much every decision gets run by me which is great.”
B.M.: What's different about preparing for this year for the staff?
T.B.: “The uncertainty of how everything is going to work over there. We’ve been here so long, principal for seven years, but I’ve been here for 21 and I know what to expect. When we do the orientation for parents in the spring, for the fifth grade parents, we know how everything works and can answer all the questions. We will not be able to some of those questions, we’ll be able to answer them based on how we think some things may go but we have not expereinced it yet. Just that part about going into a new building, it’s exciting but I’m a little anxious because I don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the biggest part, not knowing what to expect when we go over there. But the excitement part, the teachers are going to be so excited to go over there. It’s just like a whole new experience. Everyones going to be starting a new job with the same people that you work with, a lot of times you don’t get to do that.”
B.M.: Any concerns of chaos with students and teachers now being new to a building?
T.B.: “I’m not worried about that part, because I think that our staff is so good at what they do in terms of running a middle school that’ll take over anything about the building that we don’t understand...I’m not worried about chaos so much as just the uncertainty part.”
B.M.: Plans for opening celebration?
T.B.: “We haven’t scheduled them yet, but we’re going to have some closing ceremony at the end of the school year. Where we close the building and kind of hand over the keys to the new building. Probably the last day of school. We’re thinking about doing some sort of Higgins open house, the week before this building shuts down, so people can come in and take a look around. Then there’ll be some orientations in the summer for all the students and parents because it's not just going to be sixth graders it's going to have to be everybody that goes through an orientation. Then there’ll be some smaller events in the summer but I think the bigger community event will probably be in the fall...once the school year begins. We have a time capsule that we’ll be putting in...sometime after the school year starts so I think we have a general idea of what we’re going to do but we don’t have all the times planned out yet.”
B.M.: What about the time capsule?
T.B.: “It's going to go right in the wall of the chorus room...we actually bought a capsule.”
Note: A couple of years of students voted one what will go inside. Multi-year process with ideas, votes, collection, then the final placement in the fall. Todd Bucey bobblehead, old school model, MA quarter (2000), cards, Salem newspaper, Boston Strong gear, Higgins shirt, Tom Brady jersey, letter to the future, among more. Will be opened in 50 years.
B.M.: Why is the new building retaining the infamous “Higgins” name, was there any discussion of a change?
T.B.: “No and I think it was the history of new schools in Peabody. The Carroll School stayed the Carroll School, the Brown stayed the Brown, so I think the tradition here in Peabody is when you build a new school you keep the name. I think we’ll be discussing whether we keep the names of the auditorium and library and the places within the building named for people. But we never really considered changing the name.”
B.M.: What educational advantages will the Higgins now hold over other middle schools?
T.B.: “The one-to-one experience where kids are going to be able to have a Chromebook with them at all times, be able to collaborate with each other using google chrome. We’re already a google apps school, so we use all of that, but being able to collaborate with each other all the time and having access to the world beyond the Higgins and everybody having that access is important. The technology the teachers have in the classroom, which we don’t have a lot of now, but we’ve been able over the last few years. We have wifi everywhere in the building now...and our teachers...getting ready for the transition to the new building over the last two or three years technology-wise so they’re ready and they’re going into the new building with all of the new technology already experienced in using it so that’ll help in terms of instruction and I think that’s going to help the students overall.”
B.M.: With all the various directions available after high school is there a concern that more students will go elsewhere from Higgins now that it’s a top line building and PVMHS is now behind?
T.B.: “I would say that the city is looking at it as an opportunity to use the new building, the new middle school, to advocate for improvements to the high school. Facility-wise, technology-wise especially and I know that the superintendent is doing that especially for next year and the year after. Our district tech team is great and they’ve put together a five-year tech plan that includes making sure the transition from the middle school to the high school is a good one so I think rather than them looking at it saying ‘oh know we’re going to lose kids’ because they’re going to be going from a state-of-the-art middle school to a high school that’s older, I think they’re looking at that as ‘what can we do, how can we use this to get what we need at the high school.’ So I think they’re going to turn it into a positive, which is nice they’re not looking at it negatively or as nay-sayers they’re actually looking at what they need to do and they’re going to get started as early as next year...and they can do it because we’ve got one year next year before you’ve got a class that’s moving on from the new school to the high school. They can start to slowly implement some upgrades next year then be able to do even more as the years go on.”
B.M.: How are you feeling now that it's becoming a reality?
T.B.: “I’m good, I’m happy. A little stressed, I don’t get stressed easily but I look around and think in two months this all has to be out of here. It’s a nice stress to have, it’s fun, the process has been fun. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and I don’t mind this stress so I’m feeling good.”
B.M.: Are the kids feeling similar excitement?
T.B.: “Yes the sixth and seventh graders of course more-so, the eighth graders are not as excited about it. But I don’t think they understand what’s over there, you saw it for the first time today and I’ve been able to see it through the whole process, it’s not done obviously but I think when we take teachers over there and students for the first time you’ll see like what you mentioned today it is night and day. They’re totally different places and I think we’re pretty happy with the pride our kids show in this school now, I can only imagine what it’s going to be like over there.”
B.M.: Who deserves credit for how smoothly the whole plan has gone, under budget and on time?
T.B.: “I think it’s the team. The project manager, the architect, and the general manager are great to work with. The city under Mayor Bettencourt are great to work with in terms of their flexibility and common sense approach to everything and the school department. Everybody working together and moving towards that goal of getting this done and getting it done on time, making everyone proud of it, and there are things that come up. We have project meetings every Wednesday and every Wednesday there are problems that come up, things that either need to be fixed or weren’t done right and everybody has the same approach let’s figure out what it is and let’s fix it. They always refer to it as lessons learned for the next time. The general contractor that's working on our school is going to be moving on to work on the new Beverly Middle School after this and I think part of it was the success they had here and how much they enjoyed working on it and I think this caused them to want to do another. They’re from Rhode Island so it’s not a short commute for them to come here but it’s really a team effort. It’s the reason why we’re where we’re at.”