Newark plans for a new public high school focused on architecture and building trades

The School of Architecture and Interior Design is expected to open September 2022 at the site of the former St. James Hospital in Newark’s East Ward. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Newark is planning to transform a former hospital into a high school where students can study architecture and train to become plumbers and electricians.

The School of Architecture and Interior Design is expected to open September 2022 at the site of the former St. James Hospital in the East Ward, and officials say the new school will relieve overcrowding at the community’s sole existing high school. The district will lease the privately owned property, rather than build a new campus.

The plan continues the district’s fast-paced expansion, which is intended to offer local families more options and potentially draw students away from private and charter schools and back into the district. And it adds another career-focused high school to the Newark Public Schools roster, in line with Superintendent Roger León’s emphasis on preparing students for professions as well as college.

“We think that this is going to be an absolutely incredible school for the children here in the city of Newark,” León said during a hearing Thursday on the plans, “and it’s going to open up incredible possibilities for them.”

A rendering of the planned high school after the building is renovated. (Newark Public Schools)

The new high school will offer concentrations in architecture and skilled trades, including electrical, plumbing, and HVAC, which involves heating and cooling systems. Students who focus on the trades will apprentice under the district’s own skilled workers, officials said Thursday. The school will also offer a course for seniors who want to earn New Jersey real estate licenses. 

The vocational courses will introduce students to well-paid professions. In New Jersey, the average salary for architects is $83,600 and for plumbers and electricians it is more than $71,000, according to state data from 2018, the most recent year available.

School board member Yambeli Gomez said the school is a perfect fit for the East Ward, also known as the Ironbound section, where many residents are day laborers who work in the building trades.

“This is so practical,” she said. “If you know that area, you know that there are a lot of tradespeople already there.”

The former hospital, located at 155 Jefferson St., was shuttered in 2008 and has stood vacant for years. The building, which León called an “eyesore,” will likely require significant renovations.

The district plans to lease the building for an estimated $3-5 million per year, said Jason Ballard, the district’s assistant school business administrator. The lease would extend for 20 years, at which time the district could renew the lease or purchase the building.

The former St. James Hospital, which closed in 2008, will require renovations before it reopens as a school. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

Ballard said leasing is more affordable than building a new high school, which he said costs an average of $134 million, based on construction plans in other New Jersey cities.

Home to many immigrants and a large Portugese- and Spanish-speaking population, the Ironbound section has just one high school, East Side. With more than 2,000 students, it’s by far the largest of the district’s 15 high schools and is severely overcrowded, said board President Josephine Garcia, who welcomed the new high school.

“I think this was something long overdue in the East Ward,” she said. “This is definitely going to help ease the pain for the families in that ward.”

The planned high school would add to a string of new district schools, including two that launched this school year and three others slated to open this fall. As part of León’s push to revitalize vocational education in the district, the new high schools will offer courses in information technology, fashion, culinary arts, and other fields. The district also has revamped the vocational programs at its comprehensive high schools.

The lengthening list of new schools has garnered praise from families eager for more options and residents delighted to see the district growing after past superintendents closed schools and sold off empty buildings.

However, the district’s rush to acquire more space and establish new schools have also prompted questions about how it will fund the expansion and fill the hundreds of new seats. The pandemic has further strained the district’s tight budget, and the district has not produced data showing a large influx of new high school students.

Some community members also have questioned why the district is opening new high schools when many of its existing ones are under-enrolled and need extensive repairs. At Thursday’s hearing, a few residents asked whether the school will be accessible to students outside the East Ward.

León said students who live in any part of the city will be able to apply to the new high school, which will open with 260 ninth-graders in 2022 before capping off at 960 students in 2026. Officials did not discuss the school’s admissions policy Thursday. But the other new high schools admit students based on their grades, attendance records, and test scores, drawing complaints from some residents who say the schools should be open to everyone.

Despite such questions, families are sure to celebrate the school’s arrival, said Zee Oliveira, a longtime East Ward resident who heads the Ironbound Boys & Girls Club. She has watched overcrowding in the local schools force many families to send their children to classrooms far across the city.

“I am so glad at even the thought of another high school coming here,” she said. “The children of Newark are so deserving of this.”

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