For some students, school renovations can be exciting.

At Farmington High School, many teens are eagerly looking forward to next school year, when a brand-new building is expected to be completed and they can finally move in.

The construction, which started about a year ago, has had minimal disruptions on academic lives, several students said.

About 15 miles away, though, another renovation has left students feeling frustrated and disappointed.

While students at Bulkeley High School in Hartford complained of a former campus that was “falling apart,” the interim plans — splitting students into two different campuses across the city from each other — have meant limited extracurriculars, disruptions to learning and the loss of a cafeteria. And delays in construction have prolonged the issues.

“We don’t have a comfortable place to learn. We don’t have an auditorium. We don’t have a cafeteria, and we have to eat in our classrooms. … None of our teachers have sufficient materials to teach our classes. For example, we don’t have a biology laboratory,” said Kiara Melendez, a south campus student, in Spanish at a local Board of Education meeting in the spring. “Our district has the money for this construction, but the construction has paused and been like this for three years. … How much longer do we have to wait for our school? How many more classes and other experiences will we have to miss out on?”

The two Hartford County schools illustrate the vastly different experiences students can have in districts across the state — affected in part by access to funding and the size of the school system and municipality. These issues can disproportionately impact urban school districts, which have more schools to maintain and tend to have less open space available on which to build.

Marisa Halm, who works as an attorney at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, said she can’t see what’s happening in Hartford occurring in a suburban district.

“I don’t see it being tolerated,” Halm said. “It’s something, unfortunately, that’s endemic to the Hartford Public School system, which is always in transition and needing to improve and having to focus on some of its newer investments and putting funding in those.”

The problem for many of Connecticut’s urban school districts is that they’re home to dozens of schools — which often means getting “in line” before any renovations can be considered, said Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and a former superintendent in Hamden and Bridgeport.

“I can liken [Bulkeley] to Bassick High School in Bridgeport, where they’re finally getting a brand new high school. … Ten years ago, we were working on that and part of it is getting it into the bonding, and it’s also hard — even though you might be reimbursed for 90%, you’re still going to the municipality for an amount of money — and as much as Bassick was a priority, Harding [High School] was a huge priority … and my guess is in Hartford, it’s very similar,” Rabinowitz said. “They may have had to renovate other buildings that were even more top priority. … So, it’s like everyone getting in line and being able to get [funding] first.”

Urgency of renovations

At Bulkeley High School, the $210 million renovation comes after decades of operation without major upgrades, other than a new sprinkler system installed in 2000.

Approved for renovations in 2018, the high school in south Hartford began construction in 2020. Originally slotted a $149 million budget and supposed to be completed by August 2024, Hartford officials say Bulkeley’s reopening will not only be delayed a year but will also cost an additional $61 million because of COVID-19 and supply chain issues.

District officials said the campus’ systems and structures, including HVAC, electrical, elevators, doors and roof, “were old,” but students emphasized the school felt like it was “falling apart.”

“The building had a whole bunch of rats, bugs and mice,” said Brianna Arce, who graduated in 2023. “It would mostly be inside the walls. We used to smell it. It used to be bad sometimes, like if the heat was on, [the smell] would come through the vents sometimes on certain floors.”

“Most of the building was pretty old and falling apart. … There was graffiti in the bathrooms. [The classrooms] had no windows. The only windows that were actually provided to us were in the stairwells and the lunchroom. … It was a prison,” said Adrian Ortiz, the 2023 class president. “You couldn’t leave food out. Most teachers would always say, ‘I gotta hide this paper before the mice chew on it,’ or ‘Try not to eat in my classroom or you’ll attract mice and cockroaches.’ You could see cockroaches. Sometimes there would be ants.”

Paul Drummey, the chair of the Hartford School Building Committee, said the high school’s six-year construction schedule was not “typical.” He noted the building’s age as a factor in the timeline.

Bulkeley High School was built in 1978.

“The facility was showing its age — nearly 50 years in operation — and all the building systems were at the end of their useful life. Repairs and replacements do not receive state funding, while a renovation to as-new condition does,” Drummey said. “Removal of asbestos is also being accomplished. The building will be renewed from the structure outward, and it is designed to operate without needing extensive renovation for at least the next 20 years.”

School officials did not address students’ claims about the pest problem or graffiti.

Since the renovation began, students have been split among the old Dwight Elementary School in the South End of the city and the old Mark Twain School in the North End, based on their grade levels. However, both Brianna and Adrian said they would have preferred their original campus’s conditions compared to the temporary schools they were placed in when the renovations began.

“I didn’t really get the high school experience that I wanted — that I expected — like the big assemblies that we would have when I was a freshman, and all the fun that we had in the clubs we used to have,” Brianna said. “We never had any of those [again] because the school has separated. There are different schools for the 9th and 10th graders on Wethersfield [Ave.] and 11th and 12th [grade students are based] in the north. It was just harder to do anything.”

Bulkeley High School has been under construction for the past two years. Construction is expected to continue to 2025. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

The conditions for the Hartford students are starkly different from those at Farmington High School, which is under a comparable construction project.

The $145.3 million construction in Farmington, a $9.7 million increase from the original budget because of similar issues as Hartford, comes after claims that the existing campus is “undersized,” which impacts “scheduling and educational programming,” does not adhere to ADA requirements and has a “rapidly deteriorating roof that leaks in hallways and classrooms,” according to a statement of need from the district in 2019

In Farmington, a 20-minute drive from Hartford, construction began in the fall of 2022, and the school experience has since been relatively normal for students. Rather than renovating its existing building, Farmington is building a brand new high school adjacent to the existing campus to ensure “no disruption to teaching and learning,” according to the Farmington School Building Committee website. 

Rithvik Satyavarapu, a junior at the high school, never experienced “too many problems” at the existing campus, but did think it was “a little bit old.”

“Yes, the roof was leaking in some places … and anything that leaked, it seemed like it was being taken care of, and I personally haven’t observed too many other bad things,” Rithvik said. “I think the school could have definitely been upgradeable — it’s not really bad. I think it’d still be manageable.”

A systemic issue

Drummey said the decision to renovate Bulkeley, rather than build a new school, was “driven by the site configuration, insufficient land to build new while the existing remained in operation and the lack of alternate sites in the city.”

Freshmen and sophomores have been placed at Dwight Elementary School for the next few years. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Bulkeley occupies about 30 acres, according to city records. In comparison, the land area for Farmington High School is about 40 acres

In Hartford, school renovations became a point of emphasis in 2018 after the district created a Model for Excellence that “prioritized providing all our students with modern educational facilities,” said Julia Skrobak, a spokesperson for the district.

“School construction projects are scheduled and executed in collaboration with the city of Hartford, School Building Commission and the state of Connecticut,” Skrobak said. “The schedule for renovation and construction is developed after considering need, available facilities for swing space if necessary, and available budget from local and state government, including the school construction application that governs the process for schools to be renovated.”

Hartford is home to more than 30 schools, which makes access to resources even more difficult.

“Funding certainly plays some role, because a community does have to pay for some of the costs, and typically urban communities have less financial capacity to pay those costs,” said Michael Morton, the deputy executive director for communications at the School and State Finance Project. “Urban communities also have larger districts with more schools and more students, so there’s going to be more projects that they’ll ultimately have to undertake, where some of Connecticut’s suburban districts are much smaller and may only have a few schools that they need to maintain.”

Farmington has seven schools. The town’s only high school has had “10 new additions over 65 years,” including in 1952, 1964, 1978, 1996 and 2003, according to a video by the Farmington High School School Building Committee.

“There are so many different schools [in Hartford]. How many folks are actually invested in this particular school? In an entire suburb like Farmington, it has one high school to think about, whereas the district of Hartford has 10 plus different high schools [including charter and magnet schools] that they’re thinking about,” Halm said.

The student experience

Brianna isn’t alone in her sentiments of feeling “robbed” of her high school experience because of the decision to separate students into two campuses. 

In May, a dozen Bulkeley students from both campuses spoke at a local Board of Education meeting about additional issues, including having to eat in their classrooms because of the lack of a cafeteria and having to cancel events like homecoming.

Construction at Bulkeley High School was approved in 2018. It is projected to go $61 million over budget. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

“We as students are being deprived of the real high school experience. One result of this is that there are few or no clubs at all for our Bulkeley students. The only extracurricular activities we have are the different sports. What happens to the students who cannot engage in sports or are not interested in participating?” said Navita Budhoo, a north campus student. “We have one cycle. We go to school, those who play sports go to their games, and those who don’t go home. There isn’t even an option to create our own clubs or extracurricular activities because we lack access to the necessary tools.”

A handful of students also complained about their new campuses in interviews with the CT Mirror, citing how the south campus has a gym built on the third floor — making it hard to focus in class when there’s PE classes going on. They also noted both temporary Hartford campuses are also outdated.

“Having classes right under the gym was absolutely ridiculous,” said Simya Rembert, who’s entering her junior year. “Kids were running and jumping around and you could hear all of it. The top layer [of the ceiling] would shake. It was really bad.”

Adrian added that the south campus felt “ancient,” where creaking floors and dust were common.

“Even so, the lower campus is way better than the north campus. The north campus was like a shower. It was always humid,” Adrian said. “There are ACs in the classrooms … but most of them wouldn’t work. I remember a Spanish class where it was 90 degrees outside and the teacher couldn’t do anything about it — the heater was on in her classroom [because the heating system was broken].”

Christina Quaranta, from the Connecticut Justice Alliance, said it’s fair to consider classroom and environmental conditions as factors in high rates of chronic absenteeism in Hartford.

“This is a period of time where they’re learning how to socialize, what social norms are, and they’re all looking forward to having a ‘high school experience.’ So to damage that, especially in a time when lots of them have already lost a middle school experience because of the pandemic, is really unfortunate and unfair,” Quaranta said. “I think it’s detrimental to their development. It contributes to young people feeling sort of like negative feelings when they think back to school or they think back to people in authority who cared for them or didn’t.”

Over 56% of students at Bulkeley High School were missing 10% or more of their classes in 2018-19, prior to the pandemic and start of construction. That number peaked at 75% in 2020-21, before dropping to 65.3% the following year. Chronic absenteeism increased to 66.3% in the 2022-23 school year, which is when students addressed the Board of Education about their school conditions.

The district is now making efforts to try and alleviate renovation pains.

“At the end of the 2022-2023 school year, we made changes to meal service preparation in response to student concerns and have since received favorable feedback. Additionally, we have re-configured the lunch room space to remove desks and add modular tables, replicating a cafeteria-style setting and allowing students to better interact with their peers during meals,” Skrobak said. “Throughout this school year, district and school leaders will continue to meet regularly to respond to additional community concerns and ensure student needs are being met. These meetings will also include updates on the Bulkeley construction project and discussions about how best to engage and inform the school community.”

Students at Farmington High School are expected to move to a new building by August 2024. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

In Farmington, the new high school remains on pace, and students are expected to be in their new campus by August 2024. Rithvik said he feels the construction has been timely.

“By the time I enter my senior year, we should be ready to move in, and it does seem like [the new school] has more facilities, at least. For example, I’m part of the robotics team, and our robotics team is getting an upgrade to our workspace compared to the old place we’re in right now,” Rithvik said. “I’d say overall, it’s been a positive change.”

Students at Farmington High School said they’ve rarely experienced any disturbances or disruptions in class.

“We’ve never had to relocate. If we hear noise, it’s maybe like a little bit of beeping for a minute or so, but besides that, I think Farmington has done a really good job at keeping school going smoothly even with a whole other building being built like 100 feet away,” said Jane Guay, a junior and the president of Young Democrats at the high school. 

Jane also added that the district has kept students in the loop about construction.

“It hasn’t gotten in the way of my learning or anything. Last year in the spring, they would take students on tours of the building, and I got to go with one of my classes,” Jane said. “It was cool to see just how the building was being built and how they had planned out the whole thing.”

Whereas academics have remained minimally disrupted in Farmington compared to Hartford, there are similar concerns about how construction has impacted some extracurriculars. 

“This hasn’t directly impacted me, but it has for some of my peers, where they have had to temporarily destroy the baseball pits and the tennis grounds,” Rithvik said. “It’s basically just a big open field now that’s part of the construction. … But overall, it’s a very positive experience.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.