McDowell’s $9.4 million renovation to focus on unused auditorium space

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The auditorium at McDowell High School is used as a store.

School plays, assemblies, and public meetings are held in the theater at nearby McDowell Middle School.

The unused auditorium will be converted into classrooms. The Millcreek Township School Board voted this week to commit $9.4 million to reallocate space and approved $161,000 for additional design work. Major funding for the renovations will come from a new $62 million bond issue for district facility improvements.

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“The auditorium just isn’t being used. It’s kind of a dead space,” said school board chairman Gary Winschel. “The space can be better utilized and modernized for flexible classroom space.”

Planned renovations will also include updates to the high school library and select areas of McDowell Intermediate High School, where several classrooms will be moved from McDowell High School.

McDowell High School in Millcreek Township was originally built in 1953.

The district studied renovations to the aging high school as it planned mechanical, electrical, and plumbing upgrades to the building. The Millcreek Township School District met these needs at each of its facilities with money borrowed in a series of bond issues.

“Part of our study (from high school) was to see if we wanted to do an actual renovation, especially the auditorium because it’s not being used at all,” said district engineering supervisor Mike Galleher. , to principals on January 24. “It’s partly (the reason) because we have an auditorium at McDowell Intermediate, and partly because the auditorium hasn’t been renovated in a while, if ever. The lighting is poor. The seats are uncomfortable. It’s just not usable.”

New classrooms will consolidate programs

The McDowell Auditorium space will be converted to classrooms for life skills, autism support and technology programs, including some technology and workshop classes currently housed at MIHS, according to preliminary designs.

Home economics and child development classes will be moved to MIHS to provide additional space for high school programs.

At McDowell High School, the new tech area will include a STEM hub, virtual reality space, maker space, research lab, and central common space. Breakout rooms will accommodate breakout sessions and independent study.

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“We also created a metal shop and a fabrication production lab with a welding area in the middle to share,” Robert Nordin told the Millcreek Township School Board on January 24. Nordin was the lead architect for the renovation study and preliminary designs prepared by Clark. Patterson Lee, an architectural, engineering and planning firm with a regional office in Jamestown, New York.

The life skills area would include a classroom, kitchen and bathroom.

The autism support area would include two classrooms, a shared common space and two bathrooms.

Equipment and furnishings are stored on the auditorium stage at McDowell High School in Millcreek Township.  A major renovation is planned for the building originally constructed in 1953.

The sloping floor of the auditorium will be leveled to accommodate the new learning spaces. Windows will be added in the exterior wall.

“We would use glass in two walls separating the classrooms from the common areas to get a flow of natural light throughout this area,” Nordin said.

At McDowell Intermediate High School, the new home economics area will include a sewing room and three kitchen rooms.

“There’s also a demand for a culinary arts kitchen with more commercial-style appliances,” Nordin said.

The children’s development area will include a classroom and a room for the McDowell Preschool Program with its own exterior entrance.

“We can consider providing a connection between the classroom and the child development room so that students can observe what is happening in the child development area,” Nordin said.

Library plans focus on updates and comfort

Improvements to the McDowell High School Library will include new seating and an expanded cafe.

“We would keep the library as a traditional library but make it more open, more of a media center,” Nordin said, “with seating spread across the stacks and furniture for a more comfortable environment.”

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Breakout rooms are provided at one end of the library. The library cafe area currently used by Autism Support Program students will be redesigned to include a service counter and seating area. A glass partition will separate the area from the rest of the library or can be opened for additional space.

“The cafe space could be used for giveaways at sporting events in the gymnasium,” Nordin said.

A covered walkway connecting McDowell Intermediate and McDowell High School, in the background, is used daily by students.

Safety issues: moving between schools

McDowell High School typically houses classes for 11th and 12th graders. Ninth and 12th graders attend most of their classes at McDowell Intermediate School.

But a number of students have classes in both buildings, and that number will increase when the technology programs are consolidated at McDowell High School and the home economics and child development programs move to the MIHS.

And it’s a safety issue, school principal Michael Lindner said Monday. A covered outdoor walkway is the only link between the schools.

“The catwalk will finally have to be addressed,” Lindner said. “For me, that’s the big concern. I just want to make sure we don’t end up in a position where we have a bigger responsibility.”

School administrators estimate that 200 to 400 students currently use the walkway between classes and that up to 90 more students will move between buildings when technology, home economics and child development programs are consolidated.

Students are not only exposed to the elements on the catwalk but would be potential targets in the event of a school shooting, former district superintendent William Hall said in 2018.

Principals in June 2018 narrowly rejected Hall’s proposal to partially enclose the walkway with a prefabricated wall. The school board decided that the $108,000 the wall would cost could be better spent on other security measures.

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Hall later—unsuccessfully—offered using $25,000 of available federal grants for improving school safety to erect concrete barriers at regular intervals along the walkway.

“(Barriers) would be places to get out of the line of fire,” Hall said at the time.

The district needs to consider these and other ways to make the walkway safer, Lindner said.

“We need to explore all options to address this inefficiency and the concerns that have existed for many years,” Lindner said.

Previous plans included the demolition of McDowell

The McDowell High School renovation plan is the latest in a series of plans to update or even abandon the school, which was built in 1953.

The Millcreek Township School Board voted in 2012 to demolish the school and add 200,000 square feet to McDowell Middle School to accommodate students in grades 9-12. The cost was estimated at $94 million.

The project was abandoned due to community concerns and financial problems in the district.

Money from a $29 million bond issue intended to be the first of three to pay for school consolidation was instead used for other district facility needs, including new windows and classroom improvements at McDowell High School in 2014.

Contact Valerie Myers at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @ETNmyers.

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