April 25, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 12:30 AM EST
Somewhere above that ceiling tile is a roof or pipe that leaks, in a building a year old. Welcome to the new and improved $100 million Hartford Public High School.
This Sunday afternoon April 29 at Hartford Public High School, Mayor Eddie Perez will welcome the accreditation examiners from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or NEASC.
NEASC placed the country's second oldest public high school on probation back in December 1997, when Perez was making his name at the Learning Corridor, and HPHS now has the chance to clear its historical name.
But this is not only a pass-fail exam for the Pub, it's for Mayor Perez, too. The buck has to stop with him, the self-anointed chairman of the board of education and the chairman of the school building committee.
After taking a 90-minute tour of HPHS Monday morning April 23, I met wonderful professionals who have dedicated their lives to serving students. But they are also deeply concerned with the present and future status of the edifice.
I also saw many, many construction problems that would give me pause if I were an inspector looking to certify the best educational practices at the Forest Street structure.
Among the many reasons HPHS landed on probation in 1997, NEASC found flaws with the building itself. To reach accreditation, a school must meet NEASC member-approved standards.
"A school site and plant shall support and enhance all aspects of the educational program and the support services for student learning," reads one criteria. The NEASC standard demands that the plant must be up to code, and that equipment be "adequate, properly maintained, catalogued and replaced when appropriate."
Finally, NEASC rules require "A planned and adequately funded program of building and site management shall ensure the appropriate maintenance, repair, and cleanliness of the school plant."
In order to reach goals like these set almost a decade ago, voters, at the behest of activists like Hyacinth Yennie, approved bonding to finance new construction.
Yennie now watches the project like a hawk, and she invited me to see the results produced by Fluor, one of the world's largest construction managers, which runs the project for the city with Kansas-based Diggs Construction. Four Diggs employees have given a total of $1,000 to Mayor Perez's re-election campaign.
We started in the brand new field house, and her biggest complaint? "The building looks nice, but it is just a facade," she said. And if you stand outside long enough, looking at the pretty facade, you can see birds coming and going in holes in the bricks.
The Hartford Public School system has photos of the start of construction on HPHS' website, but they haven't been updated since November.
Dig deeper. She pointed to every exit door in the field house, and explained that for an energy efficient building, there should not be a one-centimeter gap between the floor and door.
As we walked along the indoor track, a line, a bump in the floor became apparent. The ripple runs from the north side to the south side, directly, straight across the basketball court, under the rubber floor.
Yennie noted that floor should have been wood, but everything has been done on the cheap. It is foreseeable that a player dribbling a basketball, will hit the bump, and either the ball will squirrel out of his hands, or he will trip on it.
We moved into the women's locker room, where cracks in the cement floor run to and fro.
One of the shower drains clogs, and some cinder blocks in the shower area remain a raw concrete surface, while the rest of the room has been painted.
On the walls, a dozen electric hand dryers had to be removed because whenever the fire alarm went off, the dryers started up, too. So where there once were dryers, now four screw holes are holes with plastic covers and a plastic electrical plate shields the wiring.
We exited into the hallway, where Yennie explained how pointless it is that two cameras are placed in an empty hallway, while the doorway to the football field is unmonitored. And as we inspected broken doorstops hanging from wire on new field house doors, we bumped into the legendary Lindy Remigino.
Remigino's beef with the field house is not shoddy construction, but lousy planning. He can't comprehend why the indoor track is 160 meters instead of the standard 200.
"The 200 meter track is the official track now," Remigino said. "The last time the CIAC used a 160 meter track was in 1949. How do I know? Because I ran on it in a state meet in the Armory. I was an 18 year old running the 50 yard dash."
He didn't want to cause waves, but he said when he asked, he was told that Weaver and Glastonbury had official indoor tracks. The problem for Remigino is that Weaver's is 30 years old, and Glastonbury's is in Glastonbury.
In the academic part of the new Hartford Public, we found dozens of problems, some big, some tiny. Room 320 features a view overlooking the football field. One pane of glass cracked in September, Yennie said, before students were in the school. She said Fluor maintains students did it. Meanwhile, what was a tiny three-inch crack has grown into a three-foot crack.
Further down the hallway, in rooms 216 and 217, during winter, the cold air whooshes into the classroom through a hollow shaft above the windows, according to the room teachers, who greet Yennie with big smiles (it seems like she knows everyone and everyone knows her). The clock in room 216, which is hardwired, doesn't work.
In front of those rooms in the Technology Academy, we see the first stains on the ceiling from a water leak. Walking down the corridor, they gradually grow from three inch spots on the ceiling tiles to practically covering the entire two square foot tile.
So yes, there is a water leak in a brand new $100,000,000 building. Practically every ten steps after that, Yennie found another issue: a fire extinguisher holder in the wall is missing its plastic bubble; another door is not flush; the caulk holding down stone windowsills is still tacky; the cinder block walls are cracking; or doorjambs are in dangerous conditions, with sharp shards of metal sticking out from naked plywood.
In the media lab, Yennie and the teacher are puzzled why the window is so small for the radio studio, which is being used for storage anyways because all the stereo equipment got stolen in the move. Another media lab has a fire alarm console in the middle of a wall where a whiteboard should be, but can't be, because of the poor placement of the alarm.
Next, we hit the music room in the old HPHS, which has perfect acoustics from when it was built back in the 1960s. To bring the room up to code, the redesign added handicap ramps. To make room for ramps, they took out storage cabinets.
Rather than sheetrock the unfinished walls where the cabinets once were, the contractors threw a coat of paint over it, and the paint clearly looks out of place, unfinished. Worse than that, though, is the newly installed phone jack doesn't work, and the sharp-edged stainless steel cage for a wall phone remains in place, in a chest high location, while the working phone sits on the teachers desk.
Where there was a thermostat, now sits another sharp edged stainless electrical cap that just doesn't fit.
"It's all about cutting costs," Yennie said. If she wasn't watching over the process, I'm not sure who would be taking every complaint from the teachers and fighting for it.
So many good people try to do good work in that edifice, that we all have to be rooting for NEASC to accredit the school, not for Eddie Perez's sake, but for the kids and the promise of equality that education offers.
Some of these defects may be fixed by Sunday, but some cannot and will likely never be fixed, and it makes me question the long-term durability of the school. It makes me wonder how this city ever created a structure so proud like City Hall? What worked for those municipal leaders more than 100 years ago? And why can't we seem to get a handle on that now?