For ten weeks, the halls of Bayonne High School were filled with the sound of hammers and saws. But a week before schools were scheduled to open on Sept. 4, these sounds were replaced by the rolling wheels of hand trucks delivering new furniture and other items to the newly constructed Arts and Scholars Academy.
But the construction of the academy was only one of a number of new advances incoming students will discover as they come to class for three half-day sessions on Sept. 4, 5, and 6 and full-day sessions on Sept. 9.
Along with the new academy the district will be introducing a new advanced mathematics program for elementary schools, expanded advanced placement programs for high-school students, a renovated culinary space, and upgraded technology that includes school-wide Wi-Fi access to meet the upcoming requirements for state testing.
Like a military operation
Preparation for schools like Bayonne High School to open in September begins the moment the doors close at the end of school the previous June, said Principal Richard Baccarella.
Maintenance crews move in, move furniture out, polish floors, paint walls, repair fixtures, and give each classroom a thorough scrubbing that cannot be done during the school year when students occupy the classrooms day in and day out. This involves scrubbing of white boards (which have replaced black chalk boards as the standard in most class rooms.)
“The general summer maintenance is huge,” Baccarella said, describing a campaign that involves multiple buildings constructed at different times and connected by bridges and doorways that make the high school resemble a painting by Escher Bach.
While this takes on the dimensions of a military campaign, Baccarella said he and the staff know the drill from years of doing it.
“We generally attack the fourth floor and then work our way down,” he said. “It gets every hot on the top floor in summer.”
This is his 12th year as high school principal. Prior to that he was vice principal for about five years, and principal of Washington School before that. But the bulk of his 40-year career he spent in physical education.
The school is divided into six houses, each with its own vice principal. Most of the houses are on one floor, except house six which is in the back of the building—where the new Arts and Scholar Academy has been constructed.
The Academy is brand new
Since the end of June, the school district has also renovated 15 classrooms to become state-of- the-art facilities at a cost of under $200,000.
The academy will be open to about 200 9th and 10th graders, focusing on fine arts, music, dance, visual arts, or an accelerated academics track made up entirely of honors and Advanced Placement courses.
To qualify for the scholars’ portion of the academy, a student must be engaged in all four areas of AP study.
“That’s the scholars program and that’s the highest level we have,” Baccarella said.
These Advanced Placement courses offer college credits to students who take the courses and pass with a certain grade.
“Much of your school reputation depends on how many students you have in AP and how well they do in the testing,” Baccarella said.
Some kids have graduated from BHS with as many as 12 to 16 college credits, he said. This amounts to a full semester or more at college.
AP classes fall into four categories: math, science, social studies, and English. Generally English and social studies are taught as a unit.
AP scholars, however, may not choose to remain in all three programs, especially later when they begin to eye potential careers, such as medicine, science, or related fields. In cases such as these, the students may focus on math and science in order to build up those areas in anticipation of moving on to college.
“It’s not that they can’t handle all of the areas, but they might want to shine in a particular area,” Baccarella said.
Business Administrator Leo Smith said this academy could be the first of many. The idea behind it is to reduce the brain drain to other schools by providing top students with a high-level academic learning space in Bayonne.
“It’s a school within a school,” Smith said. “Moving forward, we might consider a science academy.”
Schools Superintendent Patricia McGeehan said the administration will put together a committee to look into future academies.
A lot of other work done over the summer
Among other work done during the summer, McGeehan said the culinary room has been redone with a new kitchen, floor, ceiling, and wiring.
“We took it down to the studs,” she said.
She said work on both the new academy and the culinary room was done by staff that has expertise in various construction trades. This saves the school district the cost of having to bid on these things as well as allowing them to start work rather than wait out the usual delays the bidding process requires.
“The coming together of the trades was particularly interesting,” said Smith. “These guys worked as a team. These are true craftsmen from the plumbers to the carpenters, our electricians and others. If we had to go out to bid on this, we would not have been done in ten weeks. Those people would have had other jobs and we would have waited for them. The other great thing is that these craftsmen are all already on our payroll. We’re paying them anyway to be here.”
These are workers who over past summers would have done work in buildings throughout the district, but this year did a number of projects in the high school instead.
That part of the school was built in 1923, and Smith said most likely some of the classrooms there hadn’t been upgraded since first constructed. Now, they are state of the art.
“We also did a renovation of the school store,” McGeehan said.
Called the Bee Hive Store, the facility is run as part of one of the education programs.
The In Vogue fashion center has also been redone, giving the program a large space and more storage. The boys and girls bathrooms were also upgraded, and to be fair to the teachers, during the upcoming school year, their bathrooms and teachers spaces will be upgraded as well.
To meet the new requirements for state testing, all Bayonne public schools will install a Wi-Fi network that will allow for simultaneous testing. The new tests will be taken online.
Security issues addressed
In light of the school shooting in late 2012 in New Town Connecticut, the school district has focused on increasing security in the district this year.
The district had 90 security cameras and has added 65 more in the high-school complex. This includes 15 new cameras along the exterior of the school.
“We also increased the storage capacity,” said Baccarella, so that images can be kept for weeks rather than days.
These were purchased under a $348,000 federal grant secured by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, Smith said.
“It is to be used exclusively for the Bayonne High School campus,” Smith said, noting that the grant had to be expended by September or the district would lose it. “With it, we also purchased new scanners at the entrances. We also replaced some of our security doors. We enhanced the room-to-room intercom in certain places. We also purchased a new high-speed student ID printer.”
BHS will have more than 2,700 students this year, 730 of these will be freshmen.
A pilot program for cameras will start in Midtown Community School—the largest elementary school in Bayonne—which will also get outside cameras. Smith said this school is used by a number of after-schools groups such as PAL. The cameras will keep track of who goes in and out and provide administrators with a video record.
Smith said the state is finally providing aid to regular operating school districts—as opposed to Abbott Districts (considered more needy urban districts.) Smith said the state has come up with a formula to reimburse regular districts 59 cents on every dollar spent on projects the state approves.
“The number-one priority would be safety,” Smith said. “So we’re putting in for cameras, new rooms, playgrounds, security systems, doors, and things of that nature.”
He said the average age of Bayonne schools is 85 years, and they were designed to encourage people to come in.
“But times have changed,” Smith said. “Now we need to keep people out.”
Assistant Superintendent Robert Craig said elementary schools will now have receptionist desks similar to the one that already exists at the high school. Visitors will no longer be allowed to wander around school buildings but will be required to have a badge and leave identification at the desk to be retrieved when they leave the building. Visitors, even parents, can’t simply show up. They will have to have an appointment.
“If a child forgets a lunch, we’ll provide it,” Craig said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.