Before her final year at Schenectady High School, Rebecca Bruno moved to a school in an affluent area in Florida and learned about all that she and her classmates in Schenectady did not.
“It was the first time I got to see what other schools got instead of what we got,” said Bruno, who now works as an architectural designer at Mosaic Associates in Troy, working on design efforts for renovations at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and other Schenectady schools.
Bruno, 30, went to Zoller, Oneida and Schenectady High before moving to Florida, and she returned to the region as soon as she had a chance. She attended Hudson Valley Community College until her grades were good enough to transfer to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture.
“I could work in residences, but schools are my passion, especially in urban areas,” Bruno said during a recent tour of MLK’s ongoing construction work, her first project as a designer with Mosaic and four years in the making. She wanted to work to ensure students in Schenectady and other cities had access to the same well-designed learning spaces she experienced in Florida.
Despite being closed to students, MLK school was humming with activity last week as construction crews continued the dramatic renovation at the school. Renovations at a slew of Schenectady city schools are moving forward — and some are speeding up — as half of the district’s elementary schools have been shuttered to students and teachers, part of a cost-saving measure imposed at the start of the school year amid concerns of state aid cuts.
The district is currently in the midst of a $64.5 million capital project, with most work focused on elementary schools, and just starting to move toward the planning phase for the next project that will go up for voter approval, a project that will focus on renovations to Schenectady High School.
Woodlawn Elementary is also receiving a major overhaul — renovations at Woodlawn and MLK are planned to cost around $13 million at each school — while the district’s project managers finalize documents to put a $9.6 million project at Hamilton Elementary out for construction bids. Bids on a nearly $8 million renovation of Pleasant Valley and an $8 million renovation of Yates were due last week.
Without students in schools in line for the most significant renovations, construction teams can get to work without requiring complicated phasing plans to work in certain areas of the building while students use other parts of the building. Crews can also work more daytime shifts, as opposed to the “second-shift” work that limits disruptions for students but increases labor costs.
When students return to MLK school, potentially for the start of next school year, students will be welcomed by a new entryway courtyard filled with semicircular benches and a resounding Martin Luther King Jr. quote inside the front entrance.
“We desperately miss the place,” said Kristin Munrett, who took over as the school’s principal this year and has been overseeing the school year at Howe, where MLK occupies part of the building. “It’s like a fresh start after everything the kids are going through.”
The tall brick walls that once surrounded the Hamilton Hill school — originally designed by famous Chicago-based architecture firm Perkins and Will – long considered a safety risk by the district, have been removed and replaced with wood-slat fencing. The fencing offers some privacy but still gives people the ability to see through them for safety purposes.
The renovations expanded part of the building into an old courtyard space, enabling construction of a new library — referred to as a learning commons — with a high ceiling and tall windows that allow in natural light.
The new library commons will anchor a wing that will also include newly renovated rooms for reading specialists and a secondary room attached to the library outfitted with a large green screen, giving students a chance to experiment with the technology.
A reading theater fills part of the library; round tiered seating that can be used for class read-alouds, presentations or a space for kids to read on their own. A wall surrounding the reading theater is covered by wallpaper depicting a tranquil forest.
“We wanted the feeling of being outdoors,” Bruno said of the reading circle. “This is a space that is much more than reading a book.”
School leaders had a chance to put the new learning commons to use earlier this year, welcoming kindergarten families on site for screenings. They also planned to use it for picture day for virtual students.
“We want our families to be comfortable coming in,” Munrett said.
Project managers indicated during a recent school board meeting that the MLK renovations would likely conclude sometime around the beginning of next school year in September.
Bruno said she and others on the design team aimed to deliver a “museum-like space,” highlighting large-format tiling on the walls. The nod to museum design serves both as an opportunity to bolster the feel of the learning environment for students and an homage of sorts to the school’s location, once the site of Schenectady’s first museum.
“It’s a nod to the history of what was here,” she said.
She said she studies a lot of collegiate designs and works to incorporate some of those elements into projects in public schools, highlighting efforts to open school spaces to the outside and establish flexible rooms that can be put to a variety of uses.
“College should not be the first time they experience the college feeling,” she said.
A new office suite for social workers will include a specially designed sensory room to help students calm and relax themselves, outfitted with a series of lighting zones and a large skylight in the center of the office suite.
Nearly a dozen MLK quotes don walls across the building, strategically located in spaces where students are naturally likely to stop and have a chance to think about the powerful words of their school’s namesake.
“Where we place them is somewhere special,” Bruno said of the MLK quotes. “These moments where we really wanted kids to pause and reflect.”
Munrett and Bruno said they hope students return to the school with a renewed sense of pride in their building and a feeling that they have an up-to-date learning environment to grow in.
“These kids deserve it as much as every other kid,” Bruno said.