The State College Area School District is getting ready to move the Delta Program from its current, aging building to a new one on the high school grounds about a mile away. While many are ready for the change, the move from the downtown Fairmount Building means leaving a building and its history behind.
“This is a pretty important historic perspective for our visitors over here,” said Jon Downs, the school district's director of educational alternatives.
As a Delta Program graduate, I say yes to the offer from Downs, head of the school, for a tour.
“This goes behind the auditorium," he said, as we walked in the mysterious passageway. "When we get our alums back here they always want to see the North-West passage.”
The Delta Program is an alternative public school option for middle and high school students, it’s known for its personalized approach to education and its quirky building.
As we walked up one of many sets of stairs of varying heights, I asked Downs if he ever counted how many flights of stairs there are.
“I have not," he said, adding: "I can’t count that high."
The stairs are one of the problems with the building.
The district is finishing work on its new high school, which opened to students in January 2018. The project includes building a new facility for the Delta Program across from the main high school building. The move is being done for both logistical and educational reasons.
For example, it will mean more opportunities for collaboration between Delta high school and middle school classes. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be nostalgia for some of the Fairmount Building’s idiosyncrasies.
“One room I’m really going to miss that hopefully we can try to replicate -- the middle school created a room that the kids named the egg," he said. "This is where they have the study hall every other day."
“Why is it the egg?” I asked.
“They voted on that name," he said. "I don’t know why. There’s no rhyme or reason. But now we don’t call it study hall, we call it incubator. And the theme of the room is ‘It’s where great ideas are hatched.’ So, it’s all marketing."
The students’ naming of the room is typical of the Delta Program, which emphasizes community and a positive learning environment.
“So often we tell kids, ‘This is your education.’ As a parent I’ve said that and heard it said many times," Downs said. "If it’s their education, why don’t we give them some control of it? So really that’s our thought here, how we operate. Feeling that they’re part of a community first, school second, is what I always like to say.”
Enrollment is currently capped at 260. Students call teachers by their first names. Teachers have flexibility to be creative in their classes, and students have greater control over their learning.
“So you have teachers teaching what they love, kids wanting to be in the classes they’re in. It’s really not rocket science," Downs said.
Although the Delta Program is thriving, the building it’s in is not.
The Fairmount Avenue school was built in 1914 and was a high school until 1955. Over time, expansions were added to both sides of the original building. It was an elementary school, and in 1981 became home to the Delta Program, formerly known as the Alternative Program or AP.
The school board has not yet decided what it will do with the building.
“Watch your step," Downs said as we made our way through the building.
That visitors need to watch their step walking around is also typical of a building that’s both enchanting and past its prime.
“Heating, ventilating, air conditioning is a huge issue in this building," Downs said.
He ticked off a list of problems: infrastructure that’s too old to find replacement parts; no elevators for a student in wheelchair; and many entrances on the side of the building — while locked — aren’t what comes to mind when you say ‘school security.’
“Walk around this building," he said. "It’s charming in many ways, but it’s frustrating in many ways too.”
The building is close to downtown and separate from the main high school -- which some view as assets. It also has features that might best be described as unique, including strange hallways and staircases that link sections of the building.
On the charming side are walls showcasing student art. On the strange side are a set of stairs leading to a single bathroom.
“I tease people and say that I worked in this building for four years before I knew how to get to the cafeteria," said Gary Masquelier, who is in his 26th year teaching at Delta.
“I think it’s very fun when someone comes in the wrong door, a guest, and they say ‘How do I get to this side of the building?’ You have to say, “I can’t tell you, I have to show you’ and so you lead them there,” he said.
He said he was reluctant about the move -- at first. “It’s just like leaving home – you know you never want to do it, until you realize it’s time to do it.”
Tenth-grader Abbey Humpreys said she loves that Delta is unique and inclusive.
“I love all the art around the school, and how a lot of students came together and just really made this building Delta and what it is,” Humphreys said.
When asked if there is anything she won’t miss and that will be better in a new building, she was quick to answer.
“Oh no, I love all of this," she said. "I’m going to miss it a lot, but I’m excited for the new building too.”
As Downs and others note, Delta means change.