By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — Before the century-old Henry K. Oliver School building re-opens as an elementary school this fall, the School Department plans to spend $500,000 over the summer to make it suitable for children in grades 1 through 5.
The building at 183 Haverhill St., which now houses the High School Learning Center and Adult Learning Center program, will become the home for the new Oliver Partnership School – a unique school that will feature unprecedented involvement by the Lawrence Teachers Union in its management.
“Right now the building is in tough shape and we need to bring it back to life,” Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley said in an interview last week.
“When we launch a new school like this, you want to start with an environment where students feel they can learn. You don’t want to have paint chips falling from the ceiling, cracked floors and radiators that don’t have covers. That’s just not acceptable. We have to create a welcoming environment where kids can focus on learning,” he said.
Major improvements include:
New furniture for every room in the building, both classroom and staff.
Fresh paint in classrooms, hallways, stairways, ceilings and bathrooms.
Plastering or re-plastering many of the interior walls and ceilings.
New window shades in every classroom.
New flooring in hallways and stairwells.
Bathroom improvements and new radiator covers.
Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin called the school improvements “long overdue.”
“We’ve been talking about the conditions at the Oliver School for over 20 years, back when I was a building representative for the union,” McLaughlin said.
“It does need significant work. There’s a whole host of things they have got to do to make that building a school again. They got to make sure the heating system is operational, all the windows are operational. We want the children of the Oliver School to go to school that will be safe and clean with a sound curriculum,” he said.
“I think the renovations that will be done this year will be the end of the refurbishing of the site. But I’m very pleased that the superintendent/receiver is going in and putting money into that school – something that hasn’t been done in years,” he said.
The Oliver School building improvements are the latest in a series of projects that Riley has embarked upon since he made catching up on building repairs and maintenance as a top priority early last year, soon after he began his state-appointed task of overseeing the turnaround of Lawrence Public Schools
Members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in late 2011 declared Lawrence a “Level 5” school district, the state’s designation for a “chronically underperforming school district.” Riley is in his 15th month of a 3 1/2-year contract of running the state’s most-troubled school system. He expects it could take up to seven years to accomplish his mission of improving the school district enough to return it to local governance.
“Better buildings have been a priority of mine since coming to Lawrence – I believe we’ve completed roughly 60 facility improvement projects at this point – and we want to keep that progress going,” Riley said.
“To that end, we’ll be making a host of important improvements at the 183 Haverhill St. building this summer, with an anticipated cost of approximately $500,000. Altogether, these upgrades should make coming to school a better experience for kids and teachers in the new Oliver Partnership School next September,” he said.
The Oliver School is in the early stages of its own turnaround, since the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education downgraded it last fall to “Level 4” – a designation for the state’s 43 poorest academically-performing schools. The Oliver became the city’s sixth “Level 4” school.
Part of Riley’s solution to turnaround the Oliver School was to split it into two separate schools – the Oliver Partnership School and an independent middle school for grades 6 through 8.
Unlocking Potential (UP), an LPS partner currently overseeing the management of Grade 6 at the Leonard Middle School – another one of the city’s six “Level 4” schools – will run The UP Academy Oliver (grades 6 through 8). That new school will operate from the Oliver School’s current quarters, out of the old Lawrence High School at 233 Haverhill St., also known as the North Common Educational Complex.
Current tenants at 183 Haverhill St. – the High School Learning Center and Adult Learning Center program – will trade places with the Oliver Partnership School and relocate to 233 Haverhill St.
Some teacher union representatives blame the Oliver School’s academic downfall on its departure from 183 Haverhill St. in 2009 and its relocation into the old Lawrence High School, a building beset with its own problems and lack of accommodations for young children.
“The old high school is a longer term project,” Riley said.
“That’s going to take place over several years. It’s a huge building. It will cost well over a million dollars over several years. It’s probably a five year-project. We’ve installed new locks and fixed water damaged classrooms and redone the gym,” Riley said.
Even with the improvements, the old Lawrence High School building doesn’t seem suitable for small children. It lacks a playground and is a large, intimidating building that was designed for high school students.
“The building we’re going back to was always an elementary school,” Riley said, referring to the original Oliver School building.
As far as Lawrence Teachers Union President McLaughlin is concerned, the timing of the new Oliver Partnership School’s creation and its move to the original Oliver School building couldn’t be better.
“It’s exactly 100 years-old, so we want to really make a splash in there this year,” McLaughlin said.
“Just like ‘This Old House’,” he said, referring to the popular PBS television series that features remodeling of old homes.
“Everything can be renovated and restored. The (Oliver) building is 100 years old. But there are a lot of school buildings that are over 100 years old that are good schools, and this could be one of them,”McLaughlin said.
“It should be. Henry K. Oliver was an interesting guy,” he said.
The “Oliver Grammar School” was named in his honor, for his service to the city as Superintendent of Schools (1857-59). He later served as mayor of Lawrence; mayor of Salem, Mass.; a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives; and Treasurer of the Commonwealth.