For one of the top high schools in the state, the renovation — more than nine years in the planning and making — results in a smaller and more energy-efficient campus
April 19, 2015 12:00 AM
Students walk through a bright blue entryway that is part of Mt. Lebanon High School's $110 million renovation. When complete, the high school will include a fine arts wing. a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) wing, a cafeteria with a composting program and a separate aquatic and physical education building. The project is the result of years of community meetings that included planning and feedback.
This is one of two new dance studios that are part of the renovation.
By Mary Niederberger / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Connor Quealy started as a freshman at Mt. Lebanon High School four years ago, the school was “dark and sort of gloomy.”
Now, with the near completion of a $110 million renovation and new construction project, the new six-floor building “is upbeat and has lots of natural light,” said Connor, a senior.
A bright building illuminated by generous portions of natural light was a major goal of the project, along with new academic, athletic and social spaces that encourage collaborative learning and optimal use of free time, said principal Brian McFeeley.
The new high school, home to about 1,700 students, holds state-of-the-art science, and manufacturing and engineering labs to feed into its newly formed STEM Academy. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
The school also has two dance studios, a renovated main auditorium that seats 1,500 along with a smaller, refurbished theater and two art studios with walls of windows and loft areas, where pool bleachers were once located.
There is also a 700-seat, centrally located cafeteria, in the space that used to house the main gymnasium. The original gym floors have been polished to a high shine, and the cafeteria ceiling rises two stories.
An athletic building, connected to the main portion of the high school via a covered walkway, holds a main gym that seats 1,900; two auxiliary gyms; an eight-lane, 25-yard pool; fitness center; and locker rooms. The fitness center was donated by alumnus Preston McMurray Jr., who graduated in 1955.
Planning — including numerous meetings with the public and stakeholder groups — started in 2006 when Connor was in third grade. Various revisions of plans were created along the way as the district balanced its wish list with finances.
Construction and demolition began in early 2012, when Connor was a freshman and just as Mr. McFeeley took over as principal. All of the work was done while students used the building, with various sections opening and closing at different times.
“All I’ve known is construction since I’ve been here,” Mr. McFeeley said.
While outside landscaping and facade work remains, all of the interior parts of the new and updated building were opened to students at the end of last month. The former Building C will be demolished this summer, making room for a patio off the cafeteria.
The three years of work included renovation, demolition and new construction of a 545,255-square-foot building that was built in various stages between the early 1920s and the 1970s when the last major work was done.
The newly finished school is 454,817 square feet and is about equally divided between parts that are new construction and those that are renovated. The smaller, more energy-efficient building is expected to save the district about 20 percent in utility costs. All of the work was done while students used the building, with various sections opening and closing at different times.
Mt. Lebanon’s new high school opens two years after Penn Hills opened its new $58 million, 300,000-square-foot high school for about 1,440 students and three years after Bethel Park opened its $91 million 326,000 square-foot high school for about 1,540 students. The Bethel Park price included demolition of the old eight-building high school campus and construction of athletic fields.
The Mt. Lebanon project was financed through two bond issues, the first in 2009 for $75 million, prompting a 2.5-mill tax hike.The second bond issue, floated in 2013, totaled $34.7 million, with an expected millage impact of 0.3 mills a year for three years. Last year, the district tax increase included 0.26 mills for bond payments, this year all of the projected tax hike will go to pension increases, said district spokeswoman Cissy Bowman.
Mt. Lebanon’s property tax rate is 23.15 mills. Nearly half of the county’s 43 school districts have millage rates above 20, and seven have higher rates than Mt. Lebanon’s.
Mt. Lebanon had a median household income of $77,081, about 50 percent higher than the Pittsburgh metropolitan area's median of $51,059, in the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the relatively affluent community, 9.37 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 12.01 percent are in special education and 5.83 percent are gifted, according to state figures. With a state School Performance Profile score of 99.3, Mt. Lebanon High School ranks among the top schools in Pennsylvania.
The old high school was built in sections, with the first constructed in 1928, followed by an addition in 1931. In 1955 the pool and auditorium were added and in 1972 another addition was constructed along with a fine arts theater. Because of its segmented structure, floors did not always connect those other parts of the building, which created obstacles for handicap accessibility.
The new footprint has a main six-floor high school that conects via a walkway over Horsman Drive to the new athletic building. All areas are handicap-accessible.
Most classrooms have large screen televisions mounted in front, which are connected to teachers’ computers and essentially serve as large monitors. Other classes, at the request of teachers in subjects such as math, have electronic whiteboards. Classrooms in the oldest wings of the school, which were previously the darkest areas, have had their ceilings raised and slanted away from the windows to draw in more light.
Connor and Alexa Turkovich, also a senior, are both editors for the high school newspaper, The Devil’s Advocate. They said they like the building arrangement that has the new cafeteria situated in the center of the school, with activity areas located nearby.
That means they can use part of their 46-minute lunch period to head to the newspaper office and classroom, which shares space with the yearbook staff, to work on the paper.
“It’s really nice to have the new facilities and have everything so centrally located,” said Alexa.
Other spaces that surround the cafeteria are the student activities office and the music area, with band, chorus, orchestra and percussion classrooms and private practice rooms.
Some students use parts of their lunch hours for music practice or to audit courses they can’t fit into their schedules.
Like the rest of the school, the new cafeteria has lots of light from overhead electric lights and a wall of windows. It replaces three separate cafeterias on different floors in the old building. In the old cafeterias, grade levels were usually separated. Now students from all grades each lunch during the three lunch periods.
For the new cafeteria, there are new and varied food selections created with the help of a chef the district hired last fall.
They include a deli station — set up much like a Subway restaurant with fresh-baked bread and lunch meats — as well as a pizza station with whole grain crusts, and a chef’s corner that alternates between Asian and burrito bars. There are also more traditional school lunch offerings that include chicken sandwiches, french fries and school lunch platters. Meals include sides of fresh fruits and vegetables, with as much purchased locally in season as possible. Meals are priced between $2.40 to $3.
There is also a composting station where students dispose of food waste and biodegradable napkins. The composting materials are given to a local resident who operates a yard-to-table garden business.
The theater arts area includes a large room that has classroom and performance space, with black stage curtains and portable bleachers that can be used for small performances.
“It’s a fantastic space that gives us the flexibility to go from classroom space to performance space,” said theater arts teacher James Marsh. “It’s like a black box theater.”
For the sciences, there is a large biology area that is half classroom, half laboratory. For chemistry there is a central lab located between two classrooms.
Science and technology areas are built for collaboration on design and manufacturing projects, with drafting, woodworking and physics classes in close proximity so students can work together on designing and testing models and then producing them, sometimes with the use of 3-D printers.
“We really can have kids flow from one step of the process to the next all the way to the end result,” said Andrew Kuskil, applied engineering teacher.
The new building has schoolwide wireless Internet service, available to students and in the classroom. The previous building, with its fragmented structure, could not support a Wi-Fi system.
For Connor and Alexa, there is only one regret about the new school: They get to use it only until June, when they graduate.
“It’s really remarkable what it became,” Connor said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1590.
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