Part 2 of 3
By M.E. Jones
AYER/SHIRLEY -- During a recent public forum held at the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School, SMMA Architects Joel Seeley and Alex Pitkin explained the "preferred option" site plan for the high school building project in a show and tell presentation of the Schematic Design Plan.
The forum was the sixth to date and was mandated by MSBA, the state agency that has agreed to reimburse the district for more than half of covered project costs.
After many months of weekly meetings and with an MSBA submission deadline date coming up in a few days, here was something substantial for the public to look at, an architecturally-correct vision of the district's new "flagship" high school, inside and out.
The forum was sparsely attended, but the sketches would be posted on the ASRSD web site, the architects said.
The Big Picture
Exterior "aerial views" set the renovated high school and its new addition on the existing footprint, expanded, reconfigured and re-oriented, in part to solve a problematic layout with several entrances off Washington Street.
The new look is campus-oriented, with a traffic tie-in to Page Hilltop Elementary School next door, making the overall set-up more approachable as well as more attractive.
Cut-away views show the interior floor plan, repaired, renovated and built upon, basically a makeover from top to bottom that doubles the 50-year old building's current
The overall layout has been expanded, improved and modernized with an eye to "21st century education," a phrase that has become the conceptual project theme.
There are places for students, staff and programs to mix, mingle or diverge. There are pen spaces for students to gather, work on projects together or alone; light-filled places to present and exhibit their work.
The architects pointed out where complimentary uses informed the line-up for 19 academic classrooms, with access to specific and general-use areas such as the library/media center, cafeteria, gymnasium and multi-use common space and explained the thinking behind relocated band and chorus rooms with tie-ins to the auditorium.
The project goals Superintendent Carl Mock talked about were practical as well as visionary: to provide educational programs and foster a desirable "school culture" in a "feasible and sustainable" environment. In simpler terms, it's all about creating a safe, clean, education-centric place for students to learn in, now and for the next 50 years.
School culture affects the success of educational programs, Mock explained, and in that sense it is key to maintain the "integrity" of the middle school as a separate entity from the high school. With grades six through eight now housed in the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School and a design plan for a high school only building, that aim has been met.
Built as the new Shirley Middle School several years ago, the town of Shirley now shoulders the entire debt from that past building project, with several years left until it's paid off.
Given that voters in both member towns will soon be asked to help pay for another school building project, a new proposal was unveiled at the forum last week by School Committee Vice Chairman Pat Kelly that taps into the same fair share philosophy.
Assuming that selectmen in Ayer and Shirley agree, the plan is to forward an article on the two Town Meeting warrants, asking if voters want Ayer to share Shirley's middle school debt, Kelly said.
Although the formula hasn't been worked out yet, the idea is to split the remaining debt expense between the two member towns, whose students now share the building.
But the offer hinges on passage of the high school building project, which the Building Committee and school administrators believe is the best way to accomplish the goals Mock outlined.
But it's not a go versus no-go situation.
As he and others at the forum pointed out, the 50-year old high school building has many ills that must be addressed, either as piecemeal, pay-as-you-go fixes done completely at taxpayers' expense, or all at once, incorporated into the value-added, state-subsidized building project proposal that will be presented to Ayer and Shirley voters this fall.
Mock spoke of the most recent New England Association of Schools and Colleges report prepared for the former Ayer Middle-High School, which cited numerous problems that had to be fixed to retain accreditation.
"Our high school was rated high for programs and staff," Mock said of the recent NEASC report. But the school was placed on "warning status" for the condition of the building, which the report stated was a "hindrance" to its educational mission. That status still stands, he said, meaning all of the items on the NEASC punch list must be fixed.
Last but not least, the new building must be "green" and it must be affordable, he said.
Until March, the direction planners were headed in aimed to meet MSBA criteria. "We needed the numbers, to build a school for 1,000 students, he said. "It made sense."
He re-capped the story, with sidelights that included the district's other three schools, Page Hilltop Elementary School in Ayer, the Ayer-Shirley Middle School and Lura A. White Elementary School in Shirley. In that scenario, the latter was slated to close, with the middle school retrofitted to take its place.
But for various reasons, that scenario was scratched in March in favor of a high school only plan for the building project. "We went to MSBA and asked if they would consider (reimbursement for) a high school only option for a smaller number of students," Mock said.
MSBA said yes.
Now, this plan is the one that makes sense. "It's better educationally" and the match between programs and space is more efficient, Mock explained. "We need to design spaces for 21st century learning."