State College High School: Tours, forum spotlight needs as debate begins on future of buildings

To Catherine Alloway, the director of Schlow Centre Region Library, State College Area High School is “subpar,” with its flooding issues and 1957 heating system, and she said is willing to pay higher taxes to have the buildings updated.

“I have to say I’m appalled to hear the heating system is as old as I am,” Alloway said.

Alloway was one of 75 people who went on student-led tours of the North and South buildings Wednesday night that was part of a community forum about the forthcoming renovation and construction project.

More than 170 people, most of whom were parents of children in the district, attended presentations from the architecture firm and the educational planner about the process and its progress. An hourlong public comment session followed.

The attendees were asked to vote for the most important factor in the project out of its cost, adequacy of the education and location of the school. Using polling devices called iClickers from Penn State, almost half said all three were equally as important, and more than 50 chose educational adequacy. Cost and location received around a dozen votes out of around 160.

The educational planner, Amy Yurko, of BrainSpaces Inc. in Chicago, will use what she calls “guiding principles” to turn student feedback on the high school into actions and strategies for the best use of space for educational needs. The principles were developed after sessions with students in December.

Among the principles shared were that student-teacher relationships are a cornerstone to academic achievement, technology is a powerful tool, and a safe school promotes learning and innovation.

Not everyone knew if the principles were in play at State High, but many agreed the principles should be priorities in shaping the new State High project.

Yurko said the people’s responses to the survey show their thinking lines up with that of the students, whose feedback was the source of the principles, and that of the teachers, who also agreed that the principles should be priorities in moving forward.

“We’re seeing the community cares about the same things that the students care about,” Yurko said.

Yurko said the results of the surveying will be taken into account in fleshing out the principles in working toward recommending the educational needs for the project.

John Beddia, an architect from Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates reviewed the options for the Westerly Parkway campus in a presentation that was almost identical to what the school board heard during a workshop Monday.

There are several options for the Westerly Parkway campus, one of which calls for renovations to both buildings and a covered walkway over the street.

Others call for the North Building to be demolished except for the pool and gymnasiums with either a nearly brand new South Building or a substantial addition to it.

Ginger MacRae, of Patton Township, was at the forum to learn about the site options and the consultants. She went on a tour, too, and learned something new:

“It’s a culmination of their environment and their relationships that contribute to the education,” said MacRae, who has children ages 7 and 4.

The forum was not without criticism.

During the public comment period, Ken Walsh, of Patton Township, questioned what why there is a need for significant renovations or construction when the districtwide master plan in 2009 recommended a renovation of the school.

He said the educational programs should be the focus.

“The building, the bricks and mortar, is not as important as the people who are in it,” said Walsh, who also questioned whether the surveys yielded beneficial feedback.

Arthur Rose, who graduated from State High in 1949 when the school was on Fairmount Avenue, called himself a skeptic about the project. He said he thought some of the issues that were “deferred maintenance” but said some of the classrooms seemed small.

Amy Bader, a self-described scientist, urged the crowd not to discount the educational planning. She said “thoughtful and careful design” can enhance productivity.

Earlier Wednesday, on one of the tours, State High seniors Amel Langston and Kieryn Ziegler shepherded more than a dozen people throughout the two buildings on an hourlong tour. They showed a German language classroom in the South Building without windows and they pointed out a stairwell in the science wing of North Building that has been closed off because of flooding.

And while showing a section of the South Building parking that frequently floods, they came upon a friend who offered her own insight:

“Everything floods,” the friend said.

Chris Finton, of Halfmoon Township, said the wiring in one of the math rooms looked “tacked on” and the heating and cooling systems seemed “seriously limited.”

“I think the infrastructure of the school needs work,” said Finton, who would support paying more taxes.

“Nothing comes for free,” he said.

During the public comments, several people raised the question of whether the district would consider splitting State High into two separate high schools. They said they supported the community feel that smaller schools bring and they know of people who feel lost in the crowd of the 2,700-student school.

Superintendent Robert O’Donnell said he told the school board not to pursue that as an option from the start, because he did not think it would support the educational programming successes the district has.

O’Donnell said officials want to implement what they have called learning communities within the larger school.