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The newly renovated Potter-Burns Elementary School in Pawtucket

PAWTUCKET – The last of the tiles are being laid down, the newly-installed floors are being given their final coat of wax, and in about a month, Potter Burns Elementary School will be open to students and faculty, the culmination of a year-long project that has breathed a fresh sense of vitality into the 98-year-old building.

Teachers will arrive at Potter Burns on Aug. 28 to tour the school’s interior, which is almost unrecognizable from what it was at the end of the 2015-16 school year. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will then return for the first day of classes on Aug. 29, coming in through a brand-new rear entrance.

Torrado Architects President Luis A. Torrado led a tour through the school on Wednesday morning, as it is in the final stages of preparation for the approaching school year. He cited the rear entrance to the school as one of the most significant changes, noting that the entryway strikes a balance between modern design elements with conforming to state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission regulations.

The school, he said, never truly had a main access point, as people would occasionally enter from Newport Avenue or the north, facing Carter Avenue. He said congestion on Carter Avenue and the south-facing Pullen Avenue posed a concern, which was why adding a primary point of entrance off the streets was critical.

The new bus and parent drop-off points are in the rear parking area, safely away from streets and sidewalks and clear of street congestion. The new bus lane is safer for students, teachers, and parents, as they no longer have to compete with busy Newport Avenue traffic. Instead, the entrance is away from the building’s rear off of Carter Avenue.

Also in the school’s rear are play areas for children, including a large grassy area for field games and a playground that, like the entrance, combines old and new. The playground incorporates new equipment that is up to the most recent safety standards along with previous hardware donated by parents.

With all this talk of new entrances, what happened to the former access point off of Newport Avenue? Those stairs have been carpeted, the walls have been painted, and the space will become a “storytelling area,” where teachers can assemble their students.

Upon stepping foot into Potter Burns through the new entrance, one immediately sees that exterior work was far from the only construction ongoing at the 98-year-old building. Once inside the building’s rear, a check-in is immediately to your right, with the principal’s, nurses’, and administrative offices to the left.

Brightly hued walls throughout the hallways also catch the eye, as Torrado said it was imperative to have “exciting, cheerful, bright colors” such as yellow and green in addition to cream white. To that end, while each classroom will have white walls, there are also colorful accent walls to give the learning spaces a comfortable and unique feel.

The teams of workers inside the building ensured that some of the school’s historic character remains in tact. Old woodwork is seen throughout the school, from door frames to closet spaces.

“Integrating the latest technology into a significant, historic building we feel is a great accomplishment,” Torrado said. “It ties together all of the generations of students for decades past with the new generations. The goal was integrating the history into the structure and making it feel seamless.”

Classrooms are outfitted with lights that automatically shut off or dim when they sense enough natural light in the room and windows are coated in a special film that tints when it feels the sun’s rays striking it. This was all done, Torrado said, to prevent glare from permeating the classrooms while providing a constant, even lighting.

The building’s first floor will become a hub of 21st century project-based learning. He showcased on Wednesday’s tour the new STEAM rooms, the “da Vinci” room for arts, a refurbished gymnasium, kiln room, and a “cafetorium” that will be a combination cafeteria and auditorium with a stage for performances.

The construction at Potter Burns is part of a $32 million bond that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2014. $13.8 million of the bond is being spent on the renovation project at Potter Burns, which has been ongoing since last summer. Students from Potter Burns moved into The Pawtucket Annex for the 2016-17 school year, while their school was renovated. Students from Nathanael Greene Elementary School will migrate into The Annex for the upcoming school year, a time during which that elementary school will undergo similar renovations.

Pawtucket School Committee Chairperson Gerard “Jay” Charbonneau said that he last visited the ongoing Potter Burns renovations about a month ago and he said he was “very pleased with the progress.”

Charbonneau said it was a combination of leadership from the mayor’s administration and school superintendent that led to “the evolution taking hold throughout the city. It has given the voters confidence to get behind these multi-million dollar bonds for renovations.”

“It’s exciting to see the physical transformation and it’s equally exciting to see the academic and educational transformation going on under Patti (DiCenso)’s leadership,” he added. “I think the results are starting to show district-wide.”

“An environment that’s safe, enhances the learning, the quality of life for all of them … Since we tore down the first ceiling last summer, it’s really about the kids and I think the first day of school, we should step away from it and let the children, the parents, the teachers enjoy it and discover it,” he continued.

Charbonneau additionally said that the transformation at Greene Elementary will be “as extensive and as inspiring as what’s gone on at Potter Burns. We owe it to the children at Greene, and the parents in that section of the community expect nothing less and deserve nothing less.”

Torrado on Wednesday said: “It’s been a great pleasure working with the Facilities Committee, which provided leadership and direction. It’s been a great working relationship with Colliers, it’s become our baby.”

Derek Osterman, senior project manager with Colliers International, explained that installing furniture will be the final piece of the puzzle to assembling Potter Burns. He anticipates the desks and chairs will arrive and be placed in their proper spot sometime in mid-August.

“It’s been one year,” he said as he looked back on the nearly-completed project. “And we’re excited to deliver this first before moving on to Greene.”

Follow Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette

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