On Tuesday afternoon, 446 students sat in their classrooms watching the inauguration and taking in the constant proclamation that change has come to America. But that morning, a different kind of change had come to those students — and one that was much closer to home.
Students at New Haven’s Cooperative Arts & Humanities high school attended class for the first time Tuesday at the school’s new location on the corner of College and Crown streets. Officials said they hope the new building’s improved facilities and downtown location will create new opportunities for students as well as local residents.
The arts-centered magnet school, which enrolls about 40 percent of its students from towns outside New Haven, is one of 28 schools that have been renovated since 1998 under the $1.5 billion Citywide School Construction Program. For students who spend an hour and a half each day on their particular art form — dance, theater, visual arts, creative writing and vocal or instrumental music — one of the most significant aspects of the move is the new and improved arts facilities.
The old location, on the corner of Orange and Bradley streets, was a converted Catholic all-girls school which lacked many of the arts resources necessary for a the magnet school’s character, some officials said. Students often had to use off-campus facilities, such as those at the Educational Center for the Arts on Audubon Street.
Dr. Dolores Garcia-Blocker, the school’s principal, said the new spaces will allow growth and specialization in the Co-op’s programs. The facilities include two new theaters, dance studios, ceramics and video production rooms, and creative writing labs. The addition of a scene shop, for example, will add to the technical aspect of the Co-op’s theater program, which Garcia-Blocker said currently focuses on acting.
“We have waited a long time for this new school,” Garcia-Blocker said.
Officials said they hope the exterior of the building will enliven the area. The new Co-op, designed by the New Haven firm Pelli Clarke Pelli, is the first high school to be designed by the firm of former Yale School of Architecture Dean Cesar Pelli. In reference to its varying materials, including glass embedded with etchings of leaves taken from New Haven trees, the school construction coordinator for New Haven Public Schools, Susan Weisselberg, said she believes the building will settle in as anew anchor for the neighborhood’s development.
Mark Hesselgrave, an architect with Pelli Clarke Pelli who worked as project manager on the Co-op design, agreed. He added that what he called the high quality building standards of the New Haven Public Schools program made it easier to use lasting materials — such as brick and copper — in the “building palette.”
“It fits well into the fabric of the city,” Hesselgrave said of the school.
The building, a $70-million project eight years in the making, sits on a full block downtown — a tract two-and-a-half times the size of the old location. The move puts students near arts centers such as the Shubert Theater and the Yale University Art Gallery. Weisselberg said she thinks that proximity, along with the expanded facilities, will take Co-op students’ art education to “another level.”
“They have all the features within their building,” she said. “They can stay after school and work, but then they can also go outside and work with partners.”
The new location may also benefit the school because of the neighborhood that surrounds it. Though school officials had considered other locations for the school, such as a parking lot on Audubon Street or a site on the corner of Howe and Chapel streets, the Crown Street site proved to be the most viable option, Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsie Clark said.
Clark added that she believes the residents of the surrounding community will not only welcome the students, but also benefit from their talents.
“There’s going to be a new audience,” Clark said. “Many people who live downtown are empty nesters or retired people.”
One of some residents’ concerns was over the area’s loss in tax income because of the school’s nonprofit status. To address this, the new Co-op had slated part of its first floor to serve as retail space.
But Weisselberg said last week that the retail space will remain empty until at least early February. Workers from Branford, Conn.-based Giordano Construction, the company that was employed by the city for the project, are still constructing the school’s theater and are currently storing their equipment there.
Arts spaces were not the only ones to get a face-lift; while the school’s second floor is devoted to practice rooms and studios, its third and fourth floors feature improved facilities for the Co-op’s academics. These include more and larger classrooms, designated resource rooms, more computers and a “state-of-the-art” library, Garcia-Blocker said.
Gabriel Hernandez ’07, a history teacher at Co-op, said all the teachers were pleased with the new building. “My history classroom has a lot more goodies,” he said.
That same excitement goes for the students. Though they toured the new building last week, many still openly gaped at the new gymnasium as they passed it on Tuesday morning. Standing along a huge staircase in the front of the school, students took in words of wisdom and warning from school officials, such as Superintendent of School Reginald Mayo, before the ceremonial yellow ribbon was cut.
“These walls are white now,” Mayo quipped. “They had better be white in 10 years.”