Vermont High School Relocates to Former Macy's

Burlington High School, located in Burlington, Vt., has reopened its doors—on a slightly unconventional new campus. After a whirlwind 10-week renovation process, the downtown Cherry Street building that formerly served as a Macy’s department store is now ready to welcome BHS students and faculty to their new home.

On Tuesday, March 2, school leaders and local political figures gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Students began attending for in-person learning on Thursday, March 4. The current plan is for half of the student body to attend classes on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other half on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The school has gone nearly a year without a central base of operations. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down its North Avenue campus in favor of remote learning last March. Then, just a few days before the start of the school year in September, the campus was forced to close indefinitely after the discovery of elevated levels of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in multiple buildings.

Besides a half day per week of in-person learning at Edmunds Middle School, Burlington students have been learning from home all school year.

In December, district officials jumped at the chance to lease the former Macy’s building, owned by four developers of the adjacent CityPlace Burlington complex. The district signed a 3.5-year lease for a cost of $1.2 million per year. Then, the race was on to complete the $3.5 million renovation project of the 150,000-square-foot space, converting it from a department store to a high school, in just 10 weeks.

Dave Farrington, owner of Farrington Construction and leader of the renovation project, said a project of this size would usually take about six months to complete. “We’re working seven days a week in here now,” he said in January. “We’ve got a lot of guys here. There were over 60 guys here today.”

Renovations include the addition of more than 60 classrooms boxed in by drywall, a cafeteria, a library, a music room, an art room, a physical education space, and more. Most classrooms do not have walls that rise all the way up to the elevated store ceilings. Marty Spaulding, district director of property services, said that classrooms couldn’t be fully closed in without cutting off ventilation. He said tearing out the ceiling would have added $2.2 million in work to an already-tight project. Likewise, he said, roughly half of the classrooms won’t have doors.

At the opening ceremony last week, district superintendent Tom Flanagan marveled at the achievement. “It’s amazing to think that we are standing in what used to be a department store; that we’re greeting people where we used to buy winter coats; reading books where they once sold fine china; taking phone calls in converted changing rooms; and learning science in the old suit racks,” he said.

Faculty and staff are just as excited about the return to normalcy; the longer the school went without a campus, the longer the sense of isolation and disconnect started to rankle. “I think that there’s that excited energy, across the board, of returning to…in-person instruction and making those connections outside of the screen,” said interim principal Lauren McBride. “As much as our students are craving it, our faculty and staff are craving it just as much.”

Students are also taking the development in stride. According to high-school junior Rebecca Cunningham, students are mainly just excited about coming out of isolation. “It’s taken a while for people to come around to the idea, but I think people are just accepting it as the new normal,” she said. “With everything going on this year—COVID and the election—there’s been so many surprises that ending up in a Macy’s is not as big of a surprise as it could have been.”

English teacher Beth Fialko-Casey also said she’s ready for the in-person connection between teachers and students that just isn’t possible during remote learnings. She can ask a student to stay after class if he looked confused during the lesson, for example, or put a hand on a student’s shoulder if she’s struggling.

“We can come together around Macy’s, and really temper anxieties and lean into what could be like the most absurd, hilarious, creative, inventive era in BHS history,” she said.

About the Author

Matt Jones is senior editor of Spaces4Learning. He can be reached at [email protected].