Choice Academy opening at new S. Barre locationAdam Caira / Staff Photo
Lisa Estivill, director of therapeutic education and after-school services for Washington County Mental Health Services, shows off one of the new classrooms, the “Green” room, in the new home of Choice Academy in South Barre. The new facility opens Wednesday.
BARRE TOWN — Though midwinter break will soon be over, students in several programs run by Washington County Mental Health Services won’t be picking up right where they left off — at least not geographically.
The transformation of a South Barre car dealership into a state-of-the-art school for students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities is largely complete, and most of what isn’t finished will be by Wednesday morning.
Nobody said it was easy.
In the span of a dozen days, the staff at the Beckley Day Program, which has been run out of a converted monastery on Beckley Hill in Barre Town, and Choice Academy, which has operated out of another former car dealership — this one on Summer Street in Barre — pulled off the massive move.
“Literally, we were like the big top circus,” said Lisa Estivill, director of therapeutic education and after-school services for WCMHS.
“We folded school down on Friday afternoon (Feb. 22) and packed everything up,” she said.
The movers arrived at both locations a week ago today, according to Estivill, who said Monday that the “break” was largely a blur, but most of the heavy lifting is done.
Estivill and Michael Curtis, director of the children, youth and family services division of WCMHS, stood among stacks of books and watched as workers assembled bookshelves in a spacious second-floor room equipped with several computer stations and e-readers for student use. Many of the volumes were donated in response to a communitywide email and a Facebook post.
“We have a library!” Estivill crowed. “You say you’re promoting literacy and then you don’t have a library? To have this space available is going to be amazing.”
Due to a combination of space constraints and economy of scale, a library wasn’t really an option at either of the other locations. However, Curtis said it is just one of the many amenities in a school that will serve nearly 50 students, from first grade through high school, starting Wednesday morning.
Curtis, who has been bogged down by the mind-numbing minutiae associated with a construction project that spanned nine months and cost $4.3 million, said he is pretty pleased with the result.
“It’s a really neat reuse,” he said of a building that doesn’t remotely resemble the one where Formula Ford once sold cars and trucks.
With the help of Waterbury architect Joe Greene and Connor Contracting Inc., Curtis said, WCMHS was able to achieve its vision of consolidating its educational programs and its community-based services under one energy-efficient roof.
Though elementary and secondary programs will be on different floors, Curtis said staff members — who previously worked at separate locations and rarely, if ever, crossed paths — would now be able to collaborate, while students could enjoy space designed with their special needs in mind.
Despite renovations, Curtis said the other locations were ill-suited for the programs they housed, making starting from scratch an attractive option. It’s an investment, he hopes, the students appreciate because the message is clear: “We’re showing you respect by giving you a nice place.”
If that translates into better behavior, Curtis said, that will be a bonus. However, educationally the school — from the library and the “café-torium” to the airier, well-lit classrooms and student-friendly spaces — is measurably better than the ones that were abandoned late last month.
The new building will be home base for roughly 150 employees, though Curtis said more than 60 of them are employed as behavior interventionists at schools throughout central Vermont. WCMHS elementary and secondary school programs, including two specialized offshoots of Choice Academy, will be located in the new facility, as will programs that fulfill the agency’s contractual obligations to the state Department for Children and Families.
Curtis, who has had to make decisions involving everything from color schemes to door locks and locations, said there is still some work to do. There is a fenced area for a playground, but installing equipment will have to wait until spring.
As for what the new school will be called, Curtis said that hasn’t been decided.
“There’s another thing we’re going to have to figure out,” he said.
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