The brick facade of the former Macy's in downtown Burlington almost looks like it could be an urban high school. Google Maps photo.
by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine In March when approximately 1,200 students and staff started classes out of the former Macy’s store on Cherry Street, the story received national attention.
“There were incredible ways that downtown business owners welcomed us,” said Victor Prussack, the coordinator of engagement for the Burlington School District. “The [St Paul’s Cathedral] church made cookies for our students and faculty. At the end of the one school day, our first few weeks there, you could go out and get a cookie.”
Prussack isn’t surprised at the stories that were written about a high school setting up shop in a dead department store. To him, the news represented a positive story about how the Burlington School District found an innovative solution to a difficult problem.
At a deeper level, however, the closing of the current high school and reopening classes in a former two-story commercial space is about people from across the Burlington community coming together, he said.
Business owners created coupon booklets for students and staff, he said. The district is talking with local businesses about student internships. Prussack said there’s a possibility that next year’s prom may happen on Church Street.
“By being downtown, we are so connected now to the entire Burlington community,” he said.
Finding a New Building
The high school and the Burlington Technical Center were displaced last fall when tests detected elevated levels of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The school district tasked Prussack with finding short-term and long-term homes for the high school and technical center.
Prussack also serves as the district’s liaison to the City of Burlington. During the COVID pandemic, he attended daily calls with the city and its COVID response team. He said these calls made it easy to solicit the municipality and COVID team for support.
After Town Meeting Day, the high school moved into what will be its temporary campus for three years: the former Macy’s store in downtown Burlington on Cherry Street. The technical center will divide its programming between downtown Burlington and space at the South Burlington Airport.
The first day of classes in the Macy’s building also marked the first day returning to in-person instruction.
The district signed a lease with the Macy’s building owners which will last, Prussack assumes, until the summer of 2024.
Prussack said much of his career in education has included building public-private partnerships to extend students’ learning beyond the classroom.
“I just heavily reached out to those folks,” he said. “But you know, it's Vermont, and so people know people and people want to help.”
Two days after school leadership learned they needed to abandon the existing high school, Prussack said he and district representatives toured the Macy’s building.
“It was pretty clear that there really wasn't much else other than the Macy's building that was large enough,” Prussack said. “But that didn't mean it could work.”
But the two-story building with 75,000-square feet on each floor connected by a central escalator did work.
“It far exceeds anything we imagined,” he continued. “No, it's great. I've been working out of that building almost every day since February.”
The former commercial space’s lack of interior walls made it easy to reconfigure classrooms. The space also contained offices and meeting rooms, which not all older schools have, Prussack noted.
The central escalator acts as a common space that Prussack said most high schools lack.
“When students transition through classes, most of them access the escalator to go up and down,” he explained. “And that's a central hub, which is great. It's just very welcoming. It allows students to feel connected to adults in ways that I think were harder in the traditional high school.”
Prussack contacted Kara Alnasrawi, director of economic recovery and Church Street Marketplace, in December as soon as the decision was made to move into the Macy’s building.
“Let's be frank, I think if you're not involved in education, and you're not comfortable with adolescents, and you're a business owner, your initial thought might be: ‘Oh, high school kids….’ Right?” Prussack said.
Alnasrawi responded with enthusiasm and coordinated meetings with business owners for January to talk through the positive impacts of the high school operating on Cherry Street as well as any unforeseen consequences.
“It's been great. There's been literally nothing negative at all. It's all been positive,” he said.
A big plus for business owners, said Prussack and Alnasrawi, was the potential for more economic activity and access to new workers.
The downtown location will help students who might lack transportation, he said. From the Macy’s building, students can walk to multiple areas of the downtown.
“They can just roll out of the school, put in two or three hours, four hours somewhere, and hop on the bus at Cherry Street and get home. So that's exciting,” he said.
Prussack and Alnasrawi are collaborating with local businesses to create paid internships. Students can use such internships to build class credits through the Flexible Pathways program.
The school has launched an electronic jobs board so business owners can post jobs, he said.
Starting with the fall semester, the business community is also invited to set up tables during the lunch break to speak with students, he said.
During the spring semester the city’s Parks and Recreation Department showcased their summer jobs, Prussack said. These jobs usually pay $15 to $20 an hour, he added.
The school is building on a relationship with the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain including free membership for students. Teachers are working with the nonprofit science center to build a course curriculum for the fall.
Prussack is also working with the Greater Burlington YMCA. Students will access the facility for physical education including lifeguard training and beginning swimming sessions.
“We do have high school students who don't know how to swim and that's a lifelong skill, but it's also a huge safety issue, especially being a district right on a lake,” he said.
Finding a New Home
The district will use the summer to tweak the Macy’s space “to make it better for learning,” he said.
Addressing lighting and sound issues, for example. The former department store has little natural light and no green space, he said.
He is working with the city’s Department of Public Works to transition the top floor of the nearby parking garage to create student and staff parking as well as outdoor space.
Prussack said that working out of the old Macy’s will help inform plans for the future high school.
“I wouldn't be surprised if we use this as a sort of mini-laboratory to help us understand what works well and what we could be doing differently in a new site,” he said.
Prussack said the series of potential sites for the new high school should be ready in late August or early September.
“One of those potential sites is most likely going to be the existing High School space,” he said.
“But we have no plans to go back into that high school,” he added. “And by renovating it, my understanding is that barring some unforeseen or great news, we would be tearing down that high school and building somewhere on that property.”
Other school districts have contacted Prussack to discuss the school’s experience in the Macy’s.
A Superintendent in Georgia reached out because she needs more space for students and is considering retrofitting an unused mall, he said.
“I don't think this will be the end of this,” he said. “I think this is going to spur other communities to think about innovative ways to use their malls instead of just tearing them down.”
According to district Communications Specialist Russell Elek, it cost the school district $3.5 million to retrofit the Macy’s building and $1.8 million a year to rent it.
“The retrofit was actually incorporated into the cost of the rent for the first year,” Elek explained. “That's a little geeky technical, but it is kind of important. That helped us a lot.”
For Elek, the big story behind the Macy’s turned high school is the value of public-private partnerships that stretched from Church Street to Montpelier.
According to Elek, Governor Phil Scott’s office asked how the state could help. Elek said, flat out, that the district needed $3.5 million. Governor Scott put the amount into this session’s budget adjustment and the Legislature approved it, Elek added.
Given that the state does not normally fund school construction, Elek feels the funding showed huge support.
COVID helped the school find its temporary home, said Prussack.
“I do think COVID really helped in the sense that we were all pulling together in a community as a community,” he said.
Olga Peters is a reporter for The Commons weekly newspaper in Brattleboro and a freelance writer based in Windham County.