NHS renovation project to overhaul education too

Above is an artistic rendering of what a classroom at Naugatuck High School could look like following the renovation project. -CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — Renovations planned for Naugatuck High School will fix more than cracks in the walls and unsightly locker rooms. The proposed changes will have educational benefits for the students within those walls, officials say.

“First off, it’s going to outfit our school with the infrastructure to support the technology we need in order to provide for digital learning,” Principal Jan Saam said.

Developing 21st century skills, a key education goal for the state, requires 21st century technology, according to Saam.

Improvements to the school will make every classroom wireless and outfitted with interactive white boards, allowing students to bring their own handheld devices such as tablet computers and smart phones to complete class assignments.

Currently, the school doesn’t have the digital infrastructure to allow student devices safely on the school’s network.

Saam said many of the students already have laptops and the vast majority of students have smart phones.
The technology would also allow the school to purchase electronic textbooks, saving money and students’ backs.

Electronic textbooks are also easier to update in an ever-changing world.

“(Textbooks) go out of date the minute they go to press,” Saam said.

In the future, she said, students won’t even need a pen or pencil, much less a book bag full of heavy books.

Among those 21st century skills is video production.

One day after school last week, high school juniors Evelyn Rinaldi, Justin Rinaldi, and Sam Dunn were setting up a make-shift studio in an old dark room.

They moved stored equipment out of the way and tacked a green cloth they’d fetched from the basement to the wall with a few thumb tacks and a lot of tape. The students set up studio lights they bought.

“We have to be pretty innovative to set up this green screen,” Evelyn Rinaldi said.

The students are trying to start a weekly school broadcast to highlight student achievers, current events and special programs, but it takes three to four hours just to set up their closet studio, they said.

During class, students have to share equipment between departments, teachers said.

Under the renovation plans, the video production class would have a dedicated studio space that would double as a Board of Education meeting room. The video class could videotape meetings and make them public as well as broadcast a live morning news show to the whole school. Currently, they can’t even upload videos to You Tube, students said.

“You could communicate with the community about the great things that happen at Naugatuck High School,” said web design teacher Sara Scrofani.

With better facilities, students would be eligible for a lot of awards for student productions, which would look good on college resumes, teachers said.

“If we had an actual set up, it would be a lot easier to work on projects, which we could then send in to colleges and use for job references. When that’s the field you want to go into, it’s kind of frustrating not to have the equipment to work with,” Evelyn Rinaldi said.

Scrofani said students need to be able to communicate ideas effectively. She said it used to be sufficient to have a written paper, but now that paper needs to be a multimedia presentation.

“I think with a more 21st century infrastructure we would end up with better 21st century skills for our students … which in our global economy is pretty key,” Scrofani said.

If students don’t have the opportunity to use industry standard equipment and software in high school, it puts them behind when they get to college, video teacher Melissa McInvale said.

“Now they’re playing catch-up. … It puts them at a very big disadvantage,” McInvale said. “Some kids don’t have technology at home, so they only place they can get it is here.”

At the other end of the school, 10 of the high school’s science labs were recently renovated using a grant, but the remaining five would be upgraded under the renovation plans.

Renovated science labs will allow students to engage in more hands-on experiments that can’t be done in the antiquated labs that lack modern gas and safety features, Saam said.

The upgrades will be to physical science and chemistry labs, which currently share one lab. After renovation, each teacher would have lab space in their own classroom, according to science department head Gena Spiller.

Spiller said the new labs will allow students to connect science concepts to real life applications.

“You’re actually participating and experiencing the content instead of just having to listen to a teacher,” Spiller said.

Some programs would expand under the renovation plans.

Naugatuck culinary students have won a number of state-wide awards and scholarships in recent years. They would have a better space to practice their skills in a new, state-of-the-art kitchen, Saam said. The culinary department would be relocated to an area where they would have a restaurant accessible to the public from the outside.

Culinary arts teacher Diane Doherty said she’s had a vision to open a public restaurant in the high school since 1988, but it never worked out logistically.

“I would love to see that actually come into fruition,” Doherty said. “It’s been my dream to have that as part of the program, because what better experience could kids have than to serve you or whoever comes in,” Doherty said.

Currently, students make lunch to sell to teachers, but most teachers take it out because they don’t have time to sit down to lunch, Doherty said.

In the new restaurant, students would cook the meal, wait on customers and have the whole restaurant experience, she said. Customers would also be able to see the kitchen and watch the students cook.

“What a great experience for the kids it is,” Doherty said. “Not just for us, but for the whole population of the high school. It needs to be updated … I think it’s time.”

Another program that would be expanded under the renovation plans is child care. The program would have access to a courtyard with a playground for children. The classroom would also have an observation room where parents and students could view students through a one-way mirror.

“I think it would allow us to really help the high school students get a better experience in child care,” Saam said.

For the physical education program, the biggest change will be to the boys’ locker room, which will come up out of the “dungeon” to see the light of day, Saam said. The locker room and weight room are currently located in the basement, which has poor air circulation and is a general state of disrepair. The new locker and weight rooms will foster a welcoming and healthy environment, Saam said.

Physical education teacher Sean Dunn said modern weight equipment would benefit students.

“They’re going to get more out of the activities that we’re doing,” Dunn said.

He said the location of the rooms will allow students quicker and safer access to both outdoor and indoor facilities.

A new dance studio will give students a chance to try classes like Zumba and hip hop. Last year, the physical education department brought in some local dance teachers who taught in the main gym.

“If it was mirrored room, they’re going to be able to see their movements and probably make improvements much quicker,” Dunn said.

He said some students enjoy individual activities over team sports.

“Our job as physical education teachers is to try to give them that best experience and expose them to a lot of different things,” Dunn said.

Saam said other parts of the renovated school would rearrange rooms and departments to make more sense. For example, the dean’s office, social work, and counseling offices would all be in the same area. The nurse’s office would be closer to front of building, where it will be easily accessible if an ambulance is called.

“Now everything is scattered throughout the building,” Saam said.

The renovations will make the entire school compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so students in wheelchairs will have access to any classroom and any program the school offers. Currently, some rooms have doors that are too narrow and counters that are too tall among other compliance issues.

Recent upgrades to the auditorium, including new seats and curtains will remain, but the renovations will make the balcony handicapped accessible, add a new entrance, and improve sound and lighting systems.

“What we’ve done won’t be undone and hasn’t gone to waste,” Saam said.

Saam said all the new upgrades will be compliant with state and federal guidelines so the town won’t have to come back to the voters to fix problems every other year.

Besides the practical considerations, Saam said the renovation would improve student moral. If all the classrooms are attractive and wired with state of the art technology, Saam said it would send a positive message to students and make them proud to attend a nice school.

“I think it makes people come in with a different attitude. When you walk into a new building that just looks good, you’re glad to be here,” Saam said.