Like No Other:
Take a Tour of the New MacArthur
By Shannon Hazlitt, Press & Sun-Bulletin
When the floodwaters rose and destroyed her school, Melanie Layish of Binghamton was 5 years old. Now 9, Melanie doesn’t remember much about the old MacArthur Elementary School — mostly just that it flooded on her first day of first grade. But she remembers the two places MacArthur students have been welcomed in the four years since: at St. Thomas of Aquinas School, where materials for library, much, and art lessons were transported into Melanie’s classroom on a cart. At St. Francis of Assisi, Melanie practiced her viola in a large closet in which priests had once kept their robes. The two groups of students, who have been split into studies at two empty Catholic schools since the flood of 2011 ruined the former MacArthur building, are bound together by a common emotion: sheer excitement.
Rising from the once-flooded bed of land on Vestal Avenue in the South Side of Binghamton is a remarkable new school building, one outfitted with state-of-the-art technology and built with the students and staff — and the nearby Susquehanna River — in mind. With a total project price tag of about $79.5 million, the new MacArthur is designed to promote experiential, collaborative learning indoors and out through a series of open spaces and a focus on sustainability.
Students won’t begin filtering into the new space until Nov. 30, but as school begins this week, all eyes are on the striking building taking shape amid the humming of heavy equipment and the meticulous efforts of construction workers. The new building, MacArthur Principal Maria McIver said, is “everything a teacher would dream for.”
Students, too: Melanie is ready for her fourth MacArthur in four years. This one is notable for its striking design — but also because it represents the final, crucial step in bringing a divided student body back together at last. “I’m excited for the whole school to be together again, and not split up into two buildings,” Melanie said.
Future Flood Prevention
When the rains came Sept. 7, 2011, McIver thought she would be returning to her office the next day for the second day of the school year.
Instead, she stood outside, staring at her ruined school, which had been inundated with 39 inches of water from the Susquehanna in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee.
The school’s population relocated to two the former sites of two closed Catholic schools and awaited word on when they could return to MacArthur. But in December 2011, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency made their recommendation: The building should not be repaired.
Demolition began in October 2013, and the structural foundation work began in May of the following year. The $79.5 million project was paid for almost entirely by Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and the state. Local responsibility includes less than 10 percent of the $4.5 million pricetag for the school’s geothermal and solar energy, and that will be incorporated into a portion of the school budget that taxpayers will pay off over a term of about 30 years, Mullins said. Several alternate sites for the school were considered, but ultimately the former site was determined to be the most suitable location, with one caveat: the risk of a repeat flood.
Syracuse-based Ashley McGraw Architects addressed the threat by designing MacArthur’s main section, including the gym and cafeteria, on a raised site near Vestal Avenue. The three classroom wings are raised on concrete columns five feet above the new 500-year floodplain determined by FEMA after the 2011 flood, said Ed McGraw, founding partner and CEO of Ashley McGraw Architects. That innovation resulted in an unexpected feature for the students.
Beneath the wings, the architects designed so-called Playscapes, transforming the open, sheltered space into an area where children can play year-round. In early August, the Playscapes were just taking shape, with construction workers cleaning and installing brightly colored playground pieces, from slides to climbing walls. The elevated wings will keep the school safe from flooding, but the architects were mindful of the students’ relationship to the river. The Susquehanna is visible from many of the classroom windows. Watching the river’s organic process, McGraw said, can help students heal the school’s relationship with the nearby body of water.
In some ways, the new MacArthur is the school of its students’ dreams. Beginning in May and June of 2012, the architects met dozens of times with students, staff, the community, and the Board of Education. When the architects met twice with MacArthur students, who range from kindergarten to fifth grade, they asked them to draw or write their visions for the new MacArthur building, McGraw said.
“I would say this was co-creation,” McGraw said. “This was us working with the community so the community could design the school they needed.”
And so the more than 129,000-square-foot MacArthur has its roots in the scribblings of MacArthur Elementary students on a series of 80-foot sheets of paper. Classrooms? Necessary, but not most important, McGraw said. The students drew them in as small rectangles.
Instead, “they showed us how important the ‘other’ spaces were to them,” McGraw said. “Play space, gym, cafeteria, tree houses, ice cream shops, library, McDonalds, and everything you could imagine.”
Students were also asked to draw or describe their favorite memories from the old MacArthur building. Fondly recalled features included a courtyard where a family of ducks had made its home, fourth and fifth grade lockers, and “Safety Town,” an outdoor area where the youngest children would ride their tricycles around a course of painted “roads.”
Ashley McGraw designs spaces primarily for colleges and universities, including Syracuse University and SUNY Cortland, and K-12 institutions, including work on several auditoriums in the Binghamton Central School District. The firm seeks a balance between performance and beauty, technology and nature, according to its website.
From meetings with students and staff, the McGraw team came up with five guiding visions for the MacArthur project:
• We will respect the energy of the site.
• We will heal our relationship with the river.
• We will create a net zero fossil fuel building.
• We will teach.
• We will create a safe and welcoming place for students and the community.
One lesson from the students’ dream-weaving sessions played a particularly key role in the building’s design: They wanted open, active, and energetic spaces, said Natalie Hansen, the architectural designer of the project.
“For those students, learning does not happen just in the classroom — it also happens between classes, at recess and at lunch, in those social spaces,” Hansen said.
Head inside the new MacArthur and the impact is clear: First is the entrance, then the gym that converts into an auditorium, the library with an attached computer lab, the administrative offices and the cafeteria. They’re all connected by “third spaces,” rather than narrow hallways.
Third spaces, in architecture speak, are social surroundings separate from the two typical “workplace,” and “home,” environments. Third spaces are often associated with cafes, clubs and parks. They’re the places people bond and socialize. At MacArthur, they will also be open environments suitable for community gatherings.
Other student-inspired features:
• A kid’s kitchen in the main school building located near the entrance.
• In the cafeteria, two serving lines to help students maximize their lunch time.
Teachers and staff gave their input, as well. To meet safety and security concerns, the classrooms were divided into three wings: The north wing will house fourth- and fifth-graders, the center wing, second-and third-graders, and the south wing, Pre-K, kindergarten, and first-grade students. In case of a security threat, individual wings can be shut down, McGraw said. The classrooms in each wing, just shy of 1,000 square feet, will include the latest technological advancements, including Smartboards, wireless Internet and laptop storage, said Calvin Ahn, the MacArthur school project manager with Ashley McGraw. Classrooms will also include creature comforts for both students and teachers, such as radiant heat floors — for, say, storytime on the carpet — to controllable lights with daylight sensors.
Focus on Sustainability
The designers’ emphasis on sustainability practices are apparent the moment you step inside the new elementary school. There, a screen will display how much energy the building is saving with its geothermal and solar energy sources. Other screens will be located in the cafeteria and in each classroom wing. The school will use just 25 percent of the energy of a building of its size run on traditional energy sources, McGraw said. Ashley McGraw completed a $36 million solar energy project for the Whitney Point Central School district in 2011, according to its website. The classrooms will be primarily lit by sunlight, with windows that are eye-level for children. Most lights inside the building will have sensors that allow them to dim and brighten in balance with the daylight, which will save electricity costs, he said.
The air will also be healthier, with displacement ventilation, a system that is more hygienic and removes more bacteria from the air, he said.
Much of the building’s structure, such as wooden beams, will be visible to students so they can understand a bit about how the building is put together as they walk through the halls, McGraw said. A portion of the school’s exterior is made from the wood of the black locust, native trees that regenerate quickly, he said.
Ties to the past
Based on those early input sessions, MacArthur’s design also honors the school’s previous building and its traditions. The blue stone that composes part of the exterior is new, but of the same type used on the old building. The MacArthur sign, too, is original. A popular walking track has been re-imagined as a nature-surrounded walking path with the same quarter-mile distance. In the old building, students moved from storing their belongings in cubbies in third grade to lockers in fourth. Here, the rite of passage will continue with lockers in the fourth-grade wing. Any plaques and memorials recovered from the old MacArthur school will also be reinstalled, McGraw said.
The design also strengthens the link between the school and the adjacent MacArthur Park. “It is already bringing back a vibrancy to the area that was lost when the flood happened,” McGraw said.
Ready for the Change
In the school’s two temporary homes in Hillcrest and on Binghamton’s West Side, Melanie Layish recalled, some teachers had a joke when something was misplaced: It was probably “in the Susquehanna.” Then they’d improvise with a smile. “Everyone stayed really positive,” she said.
Both “St. Thomas” and “St. Francis,” as they are commonly called, were built prior to 1950. After the flood, MacArthur students in kindergarten through second grade went to St. Thomas, while those in grades three through five went to St. Francis. Parents, teachers, and staff at MacArthur said they are grateful for those temporary homes — and for the support of the community, who showed almost endless generosity by donating everything from books to furniture. Still, the excitement leading up to opening day at the new building is palpable.
As the new MacArthur building towered in the distance one recent evening at MacArthur Park, Binghamton City schools parent Nicola Chanecka said she’s excited for her 6-year-old son, who will be in first grade in the new school, to be back in a school where Pre-K through fifth grade can be together again. She also said she’s thrilled for her son to have some of the features of a school that were not easy to replicate at St. Thomas and St. Francis, such as a library, art room and media room. Chanecka’s daughter will be in sixth grade next year at West Middle, but Chanecka said she is happy for other families with siblings who will be able to see each other in the halls next year. “I think it will build a lot of unity,” she said.
Stephanie Lisio has three children in the Binghamton City School District who will be exploring MacArthur’s wings and tech-savvy classrooms by the end of January 2016. Her children are 11, 9, and 6 years old. “I’ll have three all in one building, it is very exciting,” she said.
They’ll also be much closer to home, a reassuring thought for Lisio. “It really does make a difference if they are 15 minutes away and there is an emergency,” she said.
McIver, MacArthur’s principal, said that for some parents with two children in kindergarten through fifth grade, the drive between the two schools had helped spur them to move to another school district. “Those that can, have opted to take their children elsewhere,” she said. In a district with a high mobility rate of students, she said the exact numbers are nearly impossible to calculate. However, she said, some of those families are returning as the new MacArthur gets closer to opening day.
Teachers, too, have played close attention to the progress of the new building. Many have already begun cleaning out classrooms and planning what they can pack away for lesson plans in November and December. As they prepare for their big, bright new learning spaces, some teachers said it’s hard not to think back to the things they lost in the flood, and the ways they’ve had to adjust in their temporary buildings. “I think the hardest thing for me was losing all of my story books,” said Pam VanPutte, a MacArthur kindergarten teacher in the St. Thomas school. The community rallied, offering books, supplies and even a $50 Target gift card. Still, VanPutte recalled, “you would be in the middle of a class and get up to grab a book you were planning to read, just to see it isn’t there.”
Mike Farrell, a fourth-grade MacArthur teacher, said that while all the students and teachers felt welcome in the St. Francis school, transitioning into the new school felt like stepping back in time. For the first couple of weeks, he reverted to using a chalkboard. Farrell and VanPutte were hired at the same time 24 years ago, when they started building their friendship. They said they miss seeing each other and catching up during the day. For VanPutte at St. Thomas, the only teacher space is one small room mainly used for storing the teacher’s mailboxes and a copy machine that barely fits two people comfortably. Most teachers have to step outside or go in their cars if they would like to make a personal phone call, she said. Now, she said, she feels a rush of excitement each time she drives by the new building on her way to work, opening day inching closer, then closer still.
The Game Plan
Between Nov. 30, the end of Thanksgiving break, and Jan. 4, the end of winter recess, about 450 to 500 students will enter the new MacArthur school, said Karry Mullins, assistant superintendent for administration. Move-in dates will be staggered to correspond with final work on the building and to make the process of moving more manageable for all those involved, Mullins said. “We want to make sure this next transition for our students, teachers, and families is a smooth one,” she said. Planned move-in date for grades 3-5: Nov. 30. Younger students at St. Thomas are expected to move in over the winter break, on Jan. 4. “We are confident we are going to meet those dates,” Mullins said. “Anyone in construction knows there could be an unanticipated issues, but right now without anything unanticipated, we are going to hit these dates.”
The fourth- and fifth-grade wing is set to be completed by mid-September, Mullins said, with the second- and third-grade wing next and the Pre-K through first-grade wing last. Teachers will need to plan what they need through November and pack the rest so a moving company can transport the materials before the school officially opens to the students, Mullins said. All of the teachers will have time, most likely in mid-to-late October, to prepare their classrooms for the coming school year, she said. A moving company will transport furniture and other large items into teachers’ classrooms by November, Mullins said, an estimated three-day process per wing. They’ll use detailed instructions to make sure everything’s set up in just the right spots. A communications committee, which was created after the flood, will tour the building in late September and share more details of the layout with their colleagues, Mullins said.
“Because they are practicing teachers, they can go into a space see it and communicate to their colleagues about what is there and what they can anticipate,” Mullins said. “It does look remarkably different than old MacArthur — it is obviously 21st-century classrooms with laptops and flexible learning spaces.”
A School United
Four years is a long time to be apart. That’s something MacArthur’s faculty, staff students know all too well. And while there have been bonding activities, such as an end-of-school celebration that brought everyone together, administrators know connection in the re-united school will be key. “It is a new building with new staff,” Mullins said. “It is important for a school to work in some sort of unity and collaboration. Our students are the energy of the building, and we want them to feel connected,” she said. In early October, there will be a scavenger hunt for teachers and staff to familiarize themselves with the different parts of the building. Teachers from both St. Francis and St. Thomas will work together to build a connection.
And that sense of unity extends beyond the walls of the new MacArthur to the neighborhoods that have lost and gained much in the past four years. A community celebration of the school’s opening is planned for next spring, Mullins said. A committee is still at work on details, but the public will be invited to use the school for meetings or events. And after the upheaval and the rebuilding — both at MacArthur and for the families it serves — the community deserves a chance to celebrate a milestone of recovery, she said.
“Prior to the flood, MacArthur was a central part of the South Side community,” she said. “We anticipate that coming back.”
HELPING TO BUILD
Local/regional contractors involved in building the new MacArthur:
Plumbing: Piccirilli-Slavik & Vincent Plumbing & Heating Inc., Binghamton
Mechanical: Evans Mechanical Inc., Endicott
Electrical: Schuler-Haas Electric Corp., Johnson City
Site: G. DeVincentis & Son Construction Co. Inc., Binghamton
Structural: LeChase Construction Services, LLC, Binghamton
General Contractor: Welliver McGuire, Inc., Montour Falls
Roofing: Tower Roofing Company Inc., Johnson City
By The Numbers
$79.5 million -- Cost of new MacArthur school project
75 percent -- Share of cost picked up by FEMA
25 percent -- Share of cost picked up New York state
1,544 -- approximate number of days from the 2011 flood that closed the old MacArthur school until the new school will open