By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — Staff, students and construction crews at Collins Middle School are playing an intricate game of musical chairs.
The Highland Avenue school is roughly halfway through a $40.9 million renovation, which will replace the roof, windows, heating and cooling systems, flooring, classroom lighting and exterior masonry.
Portions of the building are sealed off during each phase of construction — there are seven — and each phase sends a new group of teachers and students into temporary classrooms elsewhere in the building. It’s a process that has been planned in advance and orchestrated by school administrators and project management.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
Project manager Josh Sydney said it’s been a big job to coordinate work on a 240,000-square-foot, fully-occupied and operating school. Sydney, of KV Associates of Boston, serves as liaison between Salem and state officials and the contractors at Collins and at Saltonstall School, which is also being renovated.
“It’s been a lot of work keeping people safe and happy,” he said.
Work at Saltonstall should be finished in July and Collins by the end of December. Both projects are on schedule and on budget, said Paul L’Heureux, director of facilities for the schools.
Saltonstall’s 363 students should be back in their own building for the coming school year, after two years of using classrooms at Bentley Elementary and the former St. James parochial school on Federal Street. Saltonstall’s $18 million construction project is much of the same work that is happening at Collins — replacing the roof, windows and heating system as well as upgrades to classroom lighting and telephone and data lines. The school dates to 1916 and underwent a major renovation from 1994 to ‘96.
As at Collins, air conditioning is being installed throughout the building, asbestos is being removed, and floors, windows and duct work are being upgraded.
Moving the Saltonstall students off-site has allowed construction to go much faster, said L’Heureux. Students would have needed to move into modular classrooms — which are no longer reimbursable by the state — if they had stayed on the Saltonstall campus, he said.
“It was the right thing to do at that location,” he said.
Collins, which has roughly 700 students, was built as the city’s high school in 1909 and was last renovated in 1992. This year’s construction project is replacing boilers, some windows and other elements that were original to the building.
“In addition to making the building weathertight, we’re making it far more energy efficient,” said L’Heureux. “The intent was to make this building usable for the next 25 to 30 years.”
The new windows — replacing old ones which had been covered with a white fiberglass coating — allow much more natural light in and open the classrooms to city views.
Gail Titus, who teaches seventh-graders in one of the renovated fourth-floor classrooms, said the windows, new flooring, paint and heating systems are the best part of her new home.
“It’s made such a difference,” she said. “The kids love it.”
Linoleum-style flooring replaces tired carpeting from the 1990s that wrinkled and bubbled up in spots. Newly painted walls and refurbished ceilings replace those stained and deteriorating from water leaks.
Before the renovation, Titus said, bits of plaster would fall off her classroom walls regularly.
In addition to being “highly energy inefficient,” Collins was prone to water leaks from windows and the roof, said L’Heureux. Both Collins and Saltonstall had an entire section of their roofs blown off in a 2010 storm.
Pieces of terra cotta molding were also known to fall off the building’s exterior. Protective scaffolding was put up from 2003 to 2012 to keep pieces from falling to the ground.
“The building was becoming a safety hazard,” said L’Heureux.
The terra cotta molding that rings the top of the building has been removed in less visible areas; in more visible areas, such as above the old main entrance, it’s been restored.
“There was a lot of effort put into preserving (the building’s) unique details,” said L’Heureux.
The construction project also includes disability access upgrades, such as doors that open automatically in stairwells, as well as new fire alarm systems, technology infrastructure, a public address system, clocks and phones throughout the building.
The second-floor School Committee chamber has also been rehabbed, with new floors and other amenities.
Because the school has remained open throughout the project, every construction worker at Collins has undergone a CORI background check, said L’Heureux.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.