NEWTON, NJ – Dating back to 1911, Halsted Middle School has had a few incarnations. Currently housing Newton’s fifth through eighth grade students, when it first opened its doors Halsted was the regional high school. Superintendent Dr. Kennedy Greene and Principal Kristi Greene (not related) led a tour of the building demonstrating why it is ready for the next chapter of the buildings history to be written; one that does not include remaining a school.
The building has undergone a number of changes over the years. Many of the architectural features are still visible, adorning everything from the front door to the water fountains with archways, old windows and heavy wooden doors. With the charm comes idiosyncrasies that often present challenges and even obstacles that are costly to overcome.
An example is the girls bathroom with stalls so small that they cannot accommodate any but they smallest child. With walls so short there is almost no privacy. The Nurses office is on the second floor, not convenient for someone who is sick or injured.
Despite the age of the building, every hallway, stairway, window sill and bathroom is clean, all the floors are polished. It is a very well kept facility. "Our custodians work very hard," Principal Greene said.
"All of the students' needs are being met in a safe way," Superintendent Greene said. He said the architects El Associates have estimated a cost of $6,457,000 to bring Halsted to code. Further, "making the existing space code compliant while adding new core spaces such a gymnasium, cafeteria and library and retrofit existing core spaces into classrooms would cost $17,107,000."
An addition in 1938 expanded the square footage and added to the labyrinth of levels, stairways and hallways. Since then, walls have been erected, windows blocked by lockers, a room was even created from the balcony of the auditorium, in an effort to force the space to meet the needs of the occupants.
Currently only part of the building is handicapped acceptable, by means of a stair chair. When it is in use, other students cannot use the stairway.
The stair chair, installed about eight years ago, according to Dr. Greene, only gives access to a part of the building. It does not allow the students access to science labs and other upper level facilities. In the past, students unable to climb the stairs remained in the library using Google classroom applications online for lessons.
The only feature that identifies a sixth and seventh grade science room is a sink. The eighth grade science rooms have only lab tables not conducive to classroom lectures.
Some of the areas of most concern to Greene and Greene are the common areas; music rooms, cafeteria, gymnasium, auditorium.
"When the fifth and sixth grades are in the band room, they use every inch of space," Principal Greene said, showing where folding chairs are moved to accommodate the budding musicians.
Chorus classes have been moved to the auditorium, where the spring musical is currently rehearsing. "They share the space with whoever needs the auditorium," Principal Greene said, adding "their schedule gets disrupted the most."
The two lunch periods are divided into two 20 minute sections; one grade eats while the other is outside for recess. Then they switch. On days of inclement weather the students go to the auditorium.
Two teachers conduct physical education classes each period, according to Greene; one in the "little gym" and the other in the cardio room.
Physical education classes scheduled for the little gym are divided into thirds. The gym is not big enough to accommodate all of the students so two thirds of the children play in the gym while the other third go to a catwalk-like hallway that overlooks the gym through a chain link fence. While up there the students ride stationary bicycles.
Also located in the make-shift cardio hallway are a bank of lockers used by honors students. "They are far away from the classrooms. We can trust our honors students to come all the way over here to get books if they need them," Principal Greene said.
The second physical education space is located in a basement-like room with two small windows. The room is lined on one side with cardio equipment the other side is a climbing wall. When not in that room, the teacher conducts health classes, "downstairs."
Around the corner, down another stairway is the technology room. Converted from an industrial arts room that is also below grade level with small high windows, the room still contains machines from its former life including a jigsaw, work tables, a big old sink. Now instead of hand tools, students work at computers with cables coming down from the ceiling in bundles to the retrofitted stations.
"This area used to be a bomb shelter," Principal Greene said. She explained the new students come to the school in the summer and have a scavenger hunt at the beginning of the school year to be able to acclimate themselves to the Halsted maze. She paused on the tour to show where a storage closet had been built around exposed rock.
Superintendent Greene explained the project being proposed to expand Merriam Avenue School to accommodate the 300 Halsted students would replicate all of the spaces needed to continue the programs currently offered to them and more.
"It is important to note that neither option [of fixing or retrofitting Halsted Avenue School] addresses needs identified with parking, traffic flow, outdoor space, or community space," Superintendent Greene said. The proposed plan for Merriam Ave includes adding spaces for the community and seniors to use. It addresses "traffic flow issues and adds outdoor green spaces."
The original Halsted Avenue building was located on what is now the blacktop used for outdoor physical education classes and recess. It was razed and the rubble buried right on the spot, according to Superintendent Greene. There are no fields or grassy areas for play, physical education or organized sports at the Halsted school. Nor is there any place to add such spaces.
Weather permitting the Newton Board of Education will be meeting on Tuesday, March 14. The proposed project scheduled to be presentation by the architects and administrators.