Crisis in Character: Summer Renovations Spark Concerns
by Ella Spungen and Jessica Gross
“Grounded in rich tradition while embracing the future” is the opening and arguably most commonly cited line of Packer’s mission statement. But as summer renovations become increasingly frequent, one may begin to wonder if the school still holds true to this value.
Over the past summer, Packer spent around $350,000 on renovating the cafeteria and updating the Upper School student center. The singular lunch line was divided into a fast-paced four-line system and payment through individual I.D. scanning was eradicated in favor of an included lunch. The student center was also given a flashy facelift.
As with any major shift, these changes were not readily accepted by all. The warmth and coziness that came from the worn carpets and wood furnishings lost in the renovations was, to some, one of the main traits that characterized Packer and differentiated it from peer schools. The newly designed student center, with its sterile rubber flooring and modern seating, doesn’t quite reflect the hominess that attracted so many.
“I personally miss the carpet because I feel like it made [the student center] really cozy, especially in the winter,” said Ellie Happy (‘19), echoing the sentiment of many other students who grew up in these traditional-looking halls.
Even Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Winter, who spearheaded this summer’s renovations, was initially reluctant to accept such a change in appearance.
“It was hard for me to wrap my arms around. In the beginning, when the architects brought it to us, I said…no, that’s the wrong look, I couldn’t picture this at all. But as beautiful as the benches were, and all that, they really weren’t functional,” she said.
However, sentimentality for the old style of the building was not completely disregarded in redesign.
“We had an architect who really respected the architectural integrity of the building while we modernized the space within,” said Head of School Bruce Dennis.
In terms of the practicality of the student center, it has never had a surplus of space, but these updates only further decreased seating and tables, sparking some discontent among the already crowded student body.
Possibly the most important change, though less visible, is the elimination of the approximately $7 fee to pay for lunch. In previous years, parents would pay a $450 down payment of sorts, which would then be used as credit by the student with each $7 purchase. When the student used up this credit, each lunch payment would be charged to their account. Now, the cost of food has been folded into the tuition, removing the need for individual charges every lunch and streamlining billing and paperwork. For faculty, the cost of lunch has been removed altogether.
While the renovations and the shift in lunch payment happened in conjunction, students may not realize how connected the two really are.
Through an accreditation committee, Packer learned that “other schools have what is called a full participatory meal plan, which means there is no cash in the cafeteria being handled. We had a major challenge facing us, because we realized that the dining hall as it was configured was going to be a little bit problematic,” said Ms. Winter. “What started out as, ‘can we do a simple renovation and then switch to the full participatory meal plan’, became, ‘we need to do more than that to be able to put out that amount of food and accommodate that amount of people.’”
Food Services Director Richard Costas was behind the reconfiguration of the cafeteria that was sparked directly by the assumption that more students and faculty would be eating in if there was an included lunch.
The new lunch system is clearly very efficient; students can now get their food in a fraction of the time it took in past years. Furthermore, given that the school has a better grasp on the number of students and faculty eating in the cafeteria, and can order food more precisely, there is less waste.
In terms of the decrease of seats and tables to the student center, administration was attempting to stymie further congestion and bottlenecking in the student center as more people at in the cafeteria. Furthermore, as the furniture was updated, the school had to comply with safety code set out by the city.
“There is a maximum number of people that can assemble in any given space, and a lot speaks to how many seats we have; we can’t just fill up with seating. That is a very well-used thoroughfare, and so it is going to be part of our fire-access routes. We can’t do anything that is going to impede that,” said Director of Campus Operations Maxine Coleman. She also explained that the faculty is working on creating more space for backpacks in the student center.
Although it may feel like these renovations are causing a change in the character of Packer, they may be necessary. As the Upper School population has increased and Packer has become increasingly competitive with peer schools, the demand for a space that can accommodate its masses has increased as well.
“I think the spirit of Packer really hasn’t changed, but I know people have different views of that. You can’t stand still, you can’t just let a building deteriorate. Packer’s tuition is at $45,000. You can’t charge that kind of money and have people come to a building that isn’t well-maintained and clean and modern,” said Dr. Dennis.