$9.4 million McDowell renovation will convert unused auditorium to classrooms

The McDowell High School auditorium is being used as a storeroom.

School performances, assemblies and public meetings are held in the theater at neighboring McDowell Intermediate High School.

The unused auditorium will be converted to classrooms. The Millcreek Township School Board voted this week to commit $9.4 million to repurpose the space and approved $161,000 for additional design work. Major funding for the renovations will come from a new $62 million bond issue for district facility improvements.

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"The auditorium just isn't being used. It's kind of a dead space," School Board President Gary Winschel said. "The space can be better utilized and modernized for flexible classroom space."

The planned renovations also will include updates to the high school library and to some areas of McDowell Intermediate High School, where several classes will be moved from McDowell High School.

The district studied renovations to the aging high school as it planned mechanical, electrical and plumbing improvements to the building. Millcreek Township School District has been tackling those needs at each of its facilities with money borrowed in a series of bond issues.

"Part of our study (of the high school) was to see if we wanted to do an actual renovation, specifically of the auditorium because it's not used at all," Mike Galleher, the district's supervisor of engineering, told school directors Jan. 24. "Part of (the reason) is because we have an auditorium down at McDowell Intermediate, and part of it is because the auditorium hasn't been renovated in some time, if ever. The lighting is bad. The seats are uncomfortable. It's just not usable."

New classrooms will consolidate programs

McDowell auditorium space will be converted to classrooms for life skills, autistic support and technology programs, including some technology and shop classes currently housed at MIHS, according to preliminary designs.

Home economics and child development classes will be moved to MIHS to provide additional space for the high school programs.

At McDowell High School, the new technology area will include a S.T.E.M. hub, virtual reality space, maker space, research lab and central common area. Small-group rooms will accommodate breakout sessions and independent study.

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"We also created a metal shop and fabrication production lab with a welding area in the middle to share," Robert Nordin told the Millcreek Township School Board on Jan. 24. Nordin was lead architect for the renovation study and for preliminary designs prepared by Clark Patterson Lee, an architecture, engineering and planning firm with a regional office in Jamestown, New York.

The life skills area would include a classroom, kitchen and bathroom.

.4 million McDowell renovation will convert unused auditorium to classrooms

The autistic support area would include two classrooms, a shared common space and two bathrooms.

The sloped auditorium floor will be leveled to accommodate the new learning spaces. Windows will be added in the exterior wall.

"We'd use glass in two walls dividing classrooms from common areas so we get some natural light flow through all that area," Nordin said.

At McDowell Intermediate High School, the new home economics area will include a sewing room and three cooking rooms.

And that's a safety concern, school director Michael Lindner said Monday. A covered outdoor walkway is the only connection between the schools.

"The walkway will finally have to be addressed," Lindner said. "For me, that's the big concern. I just want to make sure we don't find ourselves in a position where we have greater liability."

School administrators estimate that 200 to 400 students currently use the walkway between classes and that as many as 90 more students will move between buildings when technology, home economics and child development programs are consolidated.

Students not only are exposed to the elements on the walkway but would be potential targets if there is a school shooting, former district Superintendent William Hall said in 2018.

School directors in June 2018 narrowly rejected Hall's proposal to partially enclose the walkway with a precast wall. The School Board decided that the $108,000 that the wall would cost could be better spent on other security measures.

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Hall later — unsuccessfully — proposed using $25,000 in federal grant funding available for school safety improvements to erect concrete barriers at intervals along the walkway.

"(The barriers) would be places to get out of the line of fire," Hall said at the time.

The district needs to consider those and other ways to make the walkway safer, Lindner said.

"We need to explore all options to fix this inefficiency and concerns that have been out there for many years," Lindner said.

Previous plans included McDowell demolition

The McDowell High School renovation plan is the latest in a series of plans to update or even abandon the school, which was built in 1953.

The Millcreek Township School Board voted in 2012 to demolish the school and add 200,000 square feet to McDowell Intermediate High School to accommodate grades 9-12. Cost was estimated at $94 million.

The project was scrapped due to community concerns and district financial troubles.

Money from a $29 million bond issue intended to be the first of three to pay for the school consolidation instead was used for other district facility needs, including new windows and classroom improvements at McDowell High School in 2014.

Contact Valerie Myers at vmyers@timesnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @ETNmyers.