City Journal: Too Cool for School?

Does a high school need its own full-service restaurant? It does if it’s the new Newton North. We take an early look at what’s so special about Massachusetts’ most expensive school.

The state says schools ought to last at least 50 years. So there’s no arguing that Newton has a failure on its hands in the nearly 35-year-old Newton North High School, a rundown building with a bum heater. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has pronounced the conditions “morally unacceptable.” Voters agreed, green-lighting a replacement that’ll cost a lavish-even-by-Newton-standards $151 million. That’s more than twice the $70 million average price tag of building a high school in these parts.

Not everyone in town is cheering. “We call it the Taj Mahal. It’s a palace,” says Jeffrey Seideman, president of the Newton Taxpayers Association, who’s studied the plans and says a perfectly good renovation could’ve been had for half the price. But the school district is forging ahead the project (and trim some costs) before breaking ground this summer, and it’s already clear the new Newton North will be a stunner when it opens in 2010. Here’s a peek at why:

Today Newton North is open year round, and sees itself as a community center in addition to a high school. The new facility will maintain that multi-purpose mission with a host of amenities: the city’s only public indoor pool (with locker rooms and seats for 200 spectators), an indoor track, and a public theater with Peter Pan–style pulleys to hoist actors and scenery aloft.

If all goes as envisioned, people who don’t even have to will want to come eat at the high school. Currently the Tiger’s Loft, a small restaurant run by the school’s culinary arts program, is hidden away on the fourth floor and open only to faculty. In the new building, it’ll be a 4,000-square-foot eatery on the first floor, and open to the public.

Where the old Newton North is short on windows, the upgrade calls for glass in all 58 classrooms and 16 science labs. The 600-plus-seat cafeteria will have giant panes that look out on the athletic fields, giving diners a view of their huffing and puffing classmates.

Aside from the pool, the new Newton North will boast two gyms, a fitness center, and a dance studio that doubles as a wrestling room. Outside, athletes will have a synthetic football field with seating for 2,500, as well as the usual diamonds for softball and baseball and fields for soccer. These are hardly luxuries, says Heidi Black, the school system’s director of high school construction: With more than 70 sports teams at Newton North, top-of-the-line facilities are requirements.

Newton North will serve as both a regular high school and a vocational-technical school. That means 23,150 square feet for things like an auto shop (with three car lifts), a robotics lab, and a child development center where high schoolers can study toddlers in a nursery school. It’ll cost $10 million to build that stuff, but the city saves in the long run: If it didn’t offer these programs, it’d have to pony up about $2 million every year to bus students to the vocational program at Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington.

Before they tear down the old building, left, the new one will be built on land currently used for ballfields.

In plans for the new building, designers were careful to preserve a popular meeting place, the hallway called Main Street. The updated version will be bigger and, unlike the old one, feature seating that’ll encourage hanging out.