Business welcomes students to the Macy’s building in downtown Burlington

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The brick facade of the former Macy’s in downtown Burlington looks almost like it could be an urban high school. Google Maps photo.

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine In March, when about 1,200 students and staff began classes in the former Macy’s store on Cherry Street, the story caught nationwide attention.

“The downtown business owners made us incredibly welcome,” said Victor Prussack, Burlington School District Engagement Coordinator. “The [St Paul’s Cathedral] Church has baked cookies for our students and faculty. At the end of a day of school, our first few weeks there, you could go out and get a biscuit. “

Prussack is not surprised at the stories that have been written about a high school in a dead department store. For him, the news was a positive story about how the Burlington School District came up with an innovative solution to a difficult problem.

On a deeper level, however, the closure of the current high school and the reopening of classes in a former two-story business space is about bringing people from across the Burlington community together, he said.

Business owners created coupon books for students and employees, he said. The district speaks to local companies about student internships. Prussack said there is a chance the prom will be on Church Street next year.

“Since we’re downtown, we’re so connected to the entire Burlington community now,” he said.

Looking for a new building

The high school and Burlington Technical Center were ousted last fall when tests found elevated levels of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The school district commissioned Prussack with the short-term and long-term search for accommodation for the grammar school and the technical center.

Prussack also serves as the district’s link with the city of Burlington. During the COVID pandemic, he participated in daily calls with the city and its COVID response team. He said these calls made it easy to seek support from the community and the COVID team.

After Town Meeting Day, the high school moved to its temporary campus for three years: the former Macy’s store in downtown Burlington on Cherry Street. The technical center will split its program between downtown Burlington and the rooms at South Burlington Airport.

The first day of class in the Macy’s building also marked the first day of returning to face-to-face classes.

The district has signed a rental agreement with the builders of Macy’s, which, according to Prussack, is valid until summer 2024.

Prussack said much of his career in education has included building public-private partnerships to expand student learning beyond the classroom.

“It’s been difficult for me to approach these people,” he said. “But you know, it’s Vermont, and that’s how people know people and people want to help.”

Two days after school management learned they would be leaving the existing high school, Prussack said he and district officials were touring the Macy’s building.

“It was pretty clear that there wasn’t much else big enough besides the Macy’s building,” said Prussack. “But that didn’t mean it could work.”

But the two-story building with 75,000 square feet on each floor connected by a central escalator worked.

“It far exceeds anything we imagined,” he continued. “No, it’s great. I’ve been working from this building almost every day since February. ”

The lack of interior walls in the former commercial space made it easy to remodel the classrooms. The room also contained offices and meeting rooms, which not all older schools have, noted Prussack.

The central escalator acts as a common space, which, according to Prussack, most high schools lack.

“When students move through class, most of them use the escalator to go up and down,” he explained. “And that’s a central hub, which is great. It’s just very welcoming. It allows students to feel connected to adults in ways that I found to be more difficult in traditional high school. “

Business relations

Prussack contacted Kara Alnasrawi, director of economic recovery and Church Street Marketplace in December, once the decision was made to move into the Macy’s building.

“Let’s face it, I think if you are not in education and you are not comfortable with teenagers and you are a business owner, your first thought might be, ‘Oh, high school kids …’ Right? “Said Prussack.

Alnasrawi responded with enthusiasm and coordinated meetings with business owners for January to discuss the positive effects of operating the Cherry Street high school as well as any unforeseen consequences.

“It was great. There was literally nothing negative. It was all positive,” he said.

A big plus for business owners, said Prussack and Alnasrawi, is the potential for more economic activity and access to new workers.

The downtown location will help students who lack transportation, he said. From the Macy’s building, students can walk to several areas of downtown.

“You can just roll out of school, schedule two or three hours, four hours somewhere, and get on the bus on Cherry Street and come home. So this is exciting, ”he said.

Prussack and Alnasrawi work with local companies to create paid internships. Students can use such internships to build class points as part of the Flexible Pathways program.

The school has launched an electronic job board so business owners can post jobs, he said.

From the fall semester onwards, business is also invited to set up tables during the lunch break to talk to students.

During the spring semester, the city’s parks and leisure department showcased their vacation jobs, Prussack said. These jobs typically cost $ 15 to $ 20 an hour, he added.

The school builds on a relationship with the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, including free membership for students. The teachers are working with the nonprofit science center to create a curriculum for the fall.

Prussack also works with the Greater Burlington YMCA. Students have access to the facility for physical education classes, including lifeguard training and initiation of swimming.

“We have high school students who can’t swim and that’s a lifelong skill, but it’s also a huge safety issue, especially since it’s a neighborhood right on a lake,” he said.

Find a new home

The district will use the summer to optimize the Macy’s space “to make it better for learning,” he said.

For example with light and sound problems. The former department store has little daylight and no green spaces, he said.

He is working with the municipal office for public works on the redesign of the top floor of the nearby parking garage to create student and employee parking spaces as well as outdoor areas.

Prussack said working with the old Macy’s will help develop plans for the future high school.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we used this as a kind of mini-lab to understand what works well and what we could do differently in a new location,” he said.

Prussack said the range of potential locations for the new high school should be ready in late August or early September.

“One of those potential locations will most likely be the existing high school area,” he said.

“But we have no plans to go back to this high school,” he added. “And if I renovate it, barring any unforeseen or great news, we would demolish this high school and build it somewhere on this property.”

Other school districts have contacted Prussack to discuss the school’s experience with the Macy’s.

A superintendent in Georgia came forward because she needed more space for students and was considering upgrading an unused mall, he said.

“I don’t think this will be the end,” he said. “I think this will encourage other communities to think about innovative ways to use their malls instead of just demolishing them.”

District communications specialist Russell Elek said it cost the school district $ 3.5 million to renovate the Macy’s building and $ 1.8 million a year to rent it.

“The retrofitting was actually included in the rental costs in the first year,” explains Elek. “It’s a bit geek technically, but it’s kind of important. That helped us a lot. “

For Elek, the big story behind Macy’s High School is the value of the public-private partnerships that stretched from Church Street to Montpelier.

According to Elek, Governor Phil Scott’s office asked how the state could help. Elek said straight out that the district needed $ 3.5 million. Governor Scott put the amount in the budget adjustment for that meeting and legislature approved it, Elek added.

Given that the state does not normally fund school construction, Elek sees the funding as a great support.

COVID helped the school find its temporary home, said Prussack.

“I think COVID really helped in the sense that we all pulled together in a community as a community,” he said.

Olga Peters is a reporter for The Commons weekly in Brattleboro and a freelance writer based in Windham County.



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