Northeast Metropolitan Technical High School officials could be just months away from recommending a final plan to address the litany of space and building system issues within the half-century-old complex in Wakefield.
Earlier this month, Northeast Superintendent David DiBarri revealed the district’s School Building Committee has identified four leading construction options for upgrading the vocational facility to accommodate both modern-day educational needs and a substantial jump in student enrollments in the regional high school over the past decade.
“Each of these options presented will go a long way toward helping us better meet the learning needs of our students and further allow us to provide them with the best technical education possible,” DiBarri said of the process. “We have worked diligently to fully explore these different options in order to determine which will be the best choice, and will continue to share regular updates as we continue through the design process.”
Under current timelines, the School Building Committee hopes to finalize its analysis of the four options and pick a preferred alternative by January of 2021. If all goes to according to plan, a report would be sent to the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) with the hopes that the state agency would consent in February to the site selection and construction methodology.
Based upon estimates prepared in 2016, the construction of a new vocational school could cost as much as $200 million.
“Once the Preferred Schematic Report phase is complete, the project team will then begin drawing up schematics of the chosen option, which will be submitted for consideration to the MSBA in June 2021. At that time, the project will also work to set a budget and apply for grant funding from the MSBA to offset some of the overall cost,” Northeast officials explained in a prepared statement last week.
DiBarri and his predecessor, former Northeast Superintendent Theodore Nickole, have long argued the regional high school should be rebuilt entirely in order to service future generations of students in more than a dozen area communities.
Last renovated back in 1970, the Hemlock Road building is currently home to approximately 1,250 pupils, including scores of children who hail from The Middlesex East communities of North Reading, Stoneham, Reading, Woburn, Winchester, Wakefield. DiBarri and other proponents of the building initiative hope to expand the academic space to accommodate as many as 1,722 students on the campus.
The MSBA, the state agency which has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars towards school renovation and rebuilding process across the state, voted in 2017 to invite Northeast Metro Tech district into its funding pipeline process. Though not yet pledging any money towards a potential building project, should the MSBA do so, it has agreed to foot the bill for as much as 72 percent of the construction budget.
The four plans being considered include one option for renovating and tacking on a new wing to the existing 240,138 square foot high school, which was first built back to 1968. The renovation/building addition alternative is identified by the School Building Committee as “B2.”
Three other alternatives, identified as plans C1, C2, and C3 would entail the construction of a brand new vocational school on Northeast Metro Tech’s existing 42-plus acre campus, which abuts the popular Breakheart Reservation parkland that runs from Wakefield into Saugus by Route 1.
Under C1, the new building would be squeezed onto the Water Street side of the campus near the edge of the school lot. The new building would be erected within a stones throw of the existing high school.
C2 would see a new facility built along Hemlock Road near the current site of the high school’s baseball and football field. The last new build scenario would site the new school in the middle of a heavily wooded section of the 42-acre campus that sits across the street on Hemlock Road by the Breakheart Reservation side of the lot.
The four final site plans are being explored after the School Building Committee conducted a feasibility study that analyzed a total of 12 options for renovating or rebuilding the school. The district then narrowed down its focus to six alternatives.
One option, which entailed a renovation of the existing building, was ultimately nixed as unrealistic.
The second proposal that was rejected would have entailed the purchase of new land for a new school. Given the size of the high school’s existing campus, the concept was similarly characterized as making little sense.
The feasibility study, led by architect Drummey Rosane Anderson (DRA) Inc., was officially launched in April of 2019. Under MSBA rules, the Waltham designer was required to examine a broad range of solutions for the identified building deficiencies, regardless of the district’s admitted preference for a new school.
The options were ultimately graded upon criteria that included overall cost, technical and building code obstacles, and the solution’s ability to address identified problems with the existing buildings academic amenities, capacity limitations, and building system deficiencies.
The selection of a preferred alternative for a potential funding partnership with the MSBA is one of the final reports due before the district seeks funding for a new high school. Assuming the state agency agrees with the final reports findings, the School Building Committee would then began developing more formal architectural plans for the project, before going out to bid.
School officials have been eyeing a new high school at the Hemlock Road campus for years now, and in order to demonstrate the need for the new building, the district in 2016 led its own needs assessment outside of the MSBA.
Newburyport architect Dore & Whittier, which led that analysis, ultimately forecasted it would cost around $56.2 million just to bring the facility up to current building code and American Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
In addition, the consultants described the existing facility as in major disrepair and suffering from chronic overcrowding issues. When last expanded in 1970, the high school was designed to house no more than 900 pupils.
Despite those constraints, over the past decade, Northeast Vocational School alumni have enjoyed immense success not only in the competitive and lucrative information technology, HVAC, and health industry fields, but also by enrolling into some of the country’s most prestigious colleges, such as MIT and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Northeast Metro Tech has also been listed as a Level 1 facility, a rating by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) that designates the Wakefield vocational school as one of the state’s best academic performers. Due to its academic successes and the growing popularity of vocational programs, Northeast officials reportedly reject more than 300 applications from students seeking to enroll in the district each year.
Besides space issues, Northeast officials in submissions to the MSBA described the 50-year-old building as evidencing clear signs of having outlived its useful life.
“The maintenance staff is in crisis management mode for much of the school year, patching leaking and non-functional systems [and] jerry-rigging temporary fixes, which diverts resources away from a more strategic approach to building maintenance and lowers morale," reads one snippet from Northeast's 48-page application or statement-of-interest (SOI) to the MSBA, which referenced uninsulated walls, a failing roof, collapsing sewer lines, and air quality issues due to antiquated shop systems.
"Our existing building is always neat and clean, and we are proud of how it presents to the public, but its systems are truly crumbling," another portion of the 2017 submittal continues. "Every day we walk on eggshells: one major issue or breakdown and our [capital] money will be wiped out, and the possibility of classes being interrupted or the entire school being forced to close while facility issues are dealt with is an ever-present possibility for which we cannot plan."