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Old school gets new lease on life

September 7, 2017

PAWTUCKET – Built in 1919, Potter Burns Elementary School is in the process of a major, multi-million dollar renovation project, as the entire interior of the 98-year-old building has been gutted and work is ongoing to modernize the school, while at the same time maintaining its historic charm. Jude Fairbanks, project superintendent with Ahlborg Construction Corporation of Warwick, said that while the building is facing a total interior renovation, it was important to maintain the school’s character. Thus, he said, they are “integrating new with historical,” maintaining the school’s original 98-year-old doors, molding, trim, and exterior brick. “The historical aspect was a major factor, in keeping it like it was built – historic charm but with modern amenities,” he said. The most visible exterior change is that the school’s main entrance has moved from the side of the building facing Newport Avenue to the rear near the parking lot and bus lane. The entrance will have a staircase and ramp leading up to a newly-installed vestibule. Once inside the building’s rear, a check-in will be immediately to your right, with the principal’s and administrative offices to the left. The new bus lane, Fairbanks explained, is much safer for students, teachers, and parents, as they no longer have to compete with busy Newport Avenue traffic. Instead, the entrance is safely away from the busy four-lane road in the building’s rear off of Carter Avenue. One of the most notable inquiries over the course of the last eight months of demolition and construction was “not knowing what we’d find when we opened the walls,” Fairbanks said. He explained that building materials 98 years ago were much different than they are today, which led to the questions as to what they could find and how long it could take to abate those issues. The abatement and interior demolition process took about four months, Fairbanks said. Since then, much of the work has been focused on installing all-new electrical, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning. “It’s not as difficult as you’d think,” Fairbanks explained. “It’s basically a complete gut.” Workers at the site have been putting in 50 hour weeks since last summer and they are working on a “very aggressive schedule” to have everything complete in time for the start of the 2017-18 school year. However, everything is in motion and on schedule for that goal to be reached. The Burns renovations are managed by Colliers International. After passing through the new first-floor entrance, there will be four 50-foot-by-30-foot kindergarten classrooms, two on each side of the hallway. Each of the classrooms will include bathrooms to accommodate for the kindergarten-aged children. The school’s former entrance, which faces Newport Avenue, is in the process of being transformed into a library and more classrooms. ——— The biggest challenge, Fairbanks explained, was bringing the school’s bathrooms up to code and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. While much of the 98-year-old building was not handicap-accessible, it was the restrooms that posed the greatest challenge in ensuring handicap accessibility, as they needed to be completely gutted and removed and built from the ground up. Another handicap-accessible change that will be immediately notable is that a northeast-facing stairwell has been totally removed and will be replaced by an elevator that will reach all three levels at the elementary school building. The most significant change on the building’s second floor is that three classrooms on the west-facing side of the building were removed and will be replaced with a sprawling media center. Other than the media center, much of the layout of the second floor addition, which was built in the 1920s, will remain unchanged with modern upgrades and amenities. In the basement level, the old wooden flooring was completely removed and replaced with all-new concrete floors. Fairbanks said that the biggest challenge in the basement was pouring and leveling the concrete. A maintenance room is being converted into a music room which will feature acoustic panels on the walls and ceilings. Another mechanical room and wall behind the cafeteria has been removed and will serve as direct access to what will be known as the “cafetorium” - a hybrid cafeteria and auditorium with a stage for performances. The ceilings in the entire school have been removed. Most notably in the new Potter Burns, the cafetorium ceilings will be replaced with “acoustic clouds,” horizontal circular panels that hang from the ceiling to provide better sound quality. Mayor Donald R. Grebien said “it’s very exciting to see the renovations at Potter Burns becoming a reality. As we inch closer to the finish line, you can start to imagine the amazing experience that teachers and students are going to have.” “Having had two children that attended Potter Burns, I know how badly needed the renovation was,” the mayor said, adding that his son once brought home an envelope with peeling paint and plaster with a note from his teacher pleading for her students to have a better classroom and better school. “When the community is able to see the final product, I believe they will think the temporary move was definitely worth the end product,” he said, before celebrating: “On to Nathanael Green!” Pawtucket School Committee Chairperson Gerard “Jay” Charbonneau said that it is “certainly an impressive project” ongoing at Potter Burns. “As big a project as it is, it’s one of several going on district-wide. That doesn’t just happen,” he said. “Over the last five years we’ve done close to $70 million worth of school upgrades. The strong leadership from the Mayor, City Council, and School Department are driving that evolution and we can never lose sight of the fact that this is possible because the taxpayers recognize the investment and commitment.” “As the school committee chair, it’s paramount to me. As a father, a taxpayer, and citizen, it’s equally as important,” he continued. “This city really is on the move and I hear it from all corners of the state when I’m at functions. Everybody’s talking about Pawtucket … It’s encouraging, it’s exciting. For Pawtucket to be the talk around the state is a credit to everyone involved.” The construction at Potter Burns is part of the $32 million bond that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2014. The $13.8 million renovation project at Potter Burns, which has been ongoing since last summer, is on schedule to be completed in June. Students from Potter Burns have moved into The Pawtucket Annex for the current school year, while their school is renovated. Students from Nathanael Greene Elementary School will migrate into The Annex for the 2017-18 school year, a time during which that elementary school will undergo renovations.
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