Bent over her desk in Room 342, Anizia Piris is preparing for the start of the 2008-2009 school year. Today, the 12-year teaching veteran will start a new job as a math instructor at the long troubled and now newly refurbished Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Grove Hall.
When the school bell rings this morning it will usher in the first students the Washington Street building has seen since a massive rehabilitation project began in December 2006.
The rehab, which was initially projected to cost $42 million and ended up costing $49.5 million, includes new computer and science labs, new furniture, a new cafeteria, visual arts rooms, dance studios, and music rooms. Aesthetic repairs were also made, including new doors and paint, window repairs, and new student lockers.
The boldest aspect of the rehabilitation was the construction of a four-story wing of the school that houses a gymnasium and a new high school library. In January 2009, the Grove Hall library is scheduled to move to the second floor of the new wing. The Grove Hall Community Center will open on the bottom floor that same month. All told, 65,000 square feet of space were added to the Burke.
The end result "seems perfect," Piris says. "I've never seen anything quite like it."
Families, students and members of the press were invited to attend a press conference and opening ceremony on Tuesday afternoon. As the tour commenced, the smell of fresh paint still hung in the air and staff were busy securing new computers to desks in preparation for the arrival of students on Thursday morning.
Addressing a packed auditorium, Mayor Thomas Menino, who was introduced by Burke Headmaster Carol Bradley Moore as "the brains of the project," referenced Burke's past difficulties.
The Burke lost its accreditation in 1995. In response, when Menino delivered his 1996 State of the City address in Burke's auditorium, he promised major improvements to Boston's schools. Burke's accreditation was restored in 1997. Speaking on Tuesday, Menino called the Burke rehabilitation, "an investment in the people of this neighborhood, especially the young people who represent the future of Boston."
The same year that Burke's accreditation was restored a community effort to improve the school was born. The Burke renovation was the result of a lengthy organizing campaign led by Project RIGHT Inc., a Dorchester-based grassroots organization. According to Michael Kozu, communications coordinator for Project RIGHT, securing the funding for the Burke rehabilitation took nearly 9 years. At one point it had to overcome a gubernatorial veto by then Governor Romney. After the veto, funding was secured by State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and State Rep. Marie St. Fleur.
Eleven years after beginning their campaign Project RIGHT is looking forward to "Burke opening and being utilized by the community," Kozu says. "The new facility, especially new science labs and the expanded library, will bring Burke up to the standard of other Boston schools and suburban schools."
But, Kozu added, "there's still work that needs to be done."
Despite the pomp and circumstance of the reception and press conference, construction at Burke is not complete. As classes begin for the 2008-09 school year, construction will continue on the public portion of Burke's library. The Grove Hall Community Center is not complete yet either.
During construction to expand Burke's cafeteria structural weaknesses were detected in the building. The discovery delayed progress and pushed back the project's completion date. Boston Public Schools (BPS) decided, and Project RIGHT agreed, that opening the main facility in time for the beginning of the school year was the priority and completion of the public portion of the library could be delayed until January 2009.
The community center, which will house office space and a meeting room and will occupy the bottom floor of Burke's new wing, is also scheduled to open in January 2009. Community Center services and programming will be announced, "in the weeks to come," according to headmaster Moore.
The ongoing construction is not expected to disturb Burke students, who are returning to the campus after spending two years in King Middle School on Lawrence Avenue while the renovation took place. Once complete, the Grove Hall library, now located at the corner of Crawford Street and Warren Street, will move into the second floor of Burke's new wing. The Burke High School library, which has been completed and will open with the school on Thursday, occupies the third floor of the building.
Plans call for the two libraries to operate in concert. During school hours the public will not have access to the high school library. After school hours both facilities will be open to the public. A source within the BPL says staffing and security issues for the project still need to be hammered out before the public portion of the project can open.
Chris Horan, chief communications officer for BPS, calls the BPS/BPL collaboration a "new model, never tried before." Its success will "take some creativity," Horan says. He does not foresee any difficulty for the public library opening on time and said BPS and BPL librarians were working together closely to make sure the project was a success.
The high school library, which was open to visitors on Tuesday, was stocked over the weekend by Burke teachers-volunteers so the facility would be ready for returning students. Rows of never-opened books and new brushed-aluminum Macintosh computers sat at the ready while maintenance workers and other staff took care of last minute details.
No matter the delay in completion, students and family members that attended the opening ceremony came away impressed.
Brandon Cook, Burke senior and captain of the football team, addressed the audience Tuesday saying that he was "about to cry," when he saw the new building and that he was, "just extraordinarily happy," to be returning to the new Burke facility.