By Suzannah Peckham (Graphics by Chris Hunter)
Header image: A rendering of the new gym with the current gymnasium building and tennis courts. The new gym will be located behind the current gym and library.
Hundreds of white cards will lie beneath the floor of the new Manlius Pebble Hill Athletic Center. Wishes for Manlius Pebble Hill’s future are scrawled across the cards — student wishes for things like better Wi-Fi, more desserts and windmills for renewable energy. Similar to ashes from a fire, these cards supply the foundation for something fresh.
The gym, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of our wishes, will be the first major physical change to campus as part of MPH Rising, a school-wide initiative with four parts: improved campus facilities, increased faculty compensation, increased financial aid, and continued program innovation.
These wish cards, like the student signatures scrawled on the beams of the library when it was built, represent the hopes of the community for MPH as it rises from the rubble of its recent financial crisis.
“It’s a way to have a little piece of each community member be part of the building,” said Jennifer Neuner, Director of Events and Communications.
Ground was broken for the gym in December after several delays; the Town of DeWitt gave approval for construction of both the fine arts building and the gym on Nov. 3. MPH plans to finish construction of both in August. Completion of the gym will allow for the old gym to be converted into a two-story visual arts center with administrative offices, currently in the farmhouse, on the second floor. Construction will also follow on a STEAM park, which will be built over the course of several years.
“It wasn’t hard to find things to do,” said Head of School Jim Dunaway. “The hard thing was which ones to do and which ones not to do.”
In December 2014, MPH’s financial crisis almost caused the school to close. The community raised money to pull MPH out of the ashes. As part of that recovery, MPH hired Crane MetaMarketing in January 2016 to help rebrand the school.
After several months of focus groups and observations, Crane identified areas of improvement for the school, including the need for capital improvements, and created a slogan that highlights MPH’s best qualities, which include the school’s unique classroom methods and accepting atmosphere.
In January, MPH will share the slogan, along with the school’s new marketing tools. The new materials will feature the same colors that have been added to the hallways and classrooms. These marketing materials will include new viewbooks, billboards and radio segments.
The construction is being funded by a $5 million donation from the Mezzalingua Family Foundation. MPH graduate John D. Mezzalingua, president of the MPH Board of Trustees, said MPH will continue to be a leading school of innovation, helping to prepare students for their ever-changing world. Separate donations will fund the financial aid packages and faculty compensation increases and other campus improvements, such as the new windows recently installed in Bradlee.
“As we isolate out those unique elements and begin to articulate them broadly – and it will happen quickly,” Mezzalingua said in an email, “those who know MPH will smile and knowingly nod, and those who don’t know us will inquire and want to know more about how we can change their children’s lives.”
MPH worked closely with Crane to assist with the transition into MPH Rising. Christine Albetta of Crane said that MPH stands out among the many schools she has visited.
“[We] were so impressed by your talented faculty, who use so many different approaches and methods in their classrooms,” Albetta said.
One of MPH’s best qualities is the relationships that form between students and faculty. MPH Rising will highlight that.
“Our faculty are who our students are,” Dunaway said.
The decision for the gym was made rather easily by the board, and staff similarly saw the need for a bigger communal space. A bigger gym will allow for benefits to the entire MPH community, including sports practices finishing earlier, more seating for assemblies and more space for gym classes.
“We thought that the gym space impacts student learning and student well-being most directly, and therefore that prioritized it as a major need,” said Head of Upper School John Stegeman.
Some questioned why a new gym was prioritized over MPH’s performing arts space, which many would agree is in need of attention. The performing arts center has certainly not been forgotten.
Over the last 15 years, there have been several plans about what should be built and where it should be built, said Dunaway, and these plans have included a new performing arts center.
“I would say a performing arts area is high on the list of next big projects,” Mezzalingua said.
According to Dunaway, making that change is challenging. There isn’t space for a big performing arts center. The barn has value to many, but it isn’t all that safe anymore, despite being a staple to MPH.
“Some people would be glad to see the barn go; in fact, they see it as a tinderbox waiting to burn,” Dunaway said. “Others are very attached to it emotionally, not just people who are here now but some alums.”
Performing arts are a big part of the MPH culture, just as sports are, and MPH wants to recognize that.
“For those who do athletics, just as for those who do theater or music, that’s a big part of who they are and what motivates them.” Dunaway said. “There’s no reason our sports can’t be as impressive as our arts.”
After the completion of the gym, the STEAM park will be constructed. The current gym will then be repurposed as an admissions and fine arts center, and also as a replacement of Lehman.
“I think it’s important to note that it’s more than a new gym,” Mezzalingua said in his email. “There are four entirely new spaces – Art Gallery, STEAM park, Athletic and Wellness Center, plus the renovation to Bradlee. These are major moves that will completely revitalize the School, and the whole place will feel like a new campus when they are all completed.”
Looking ahead five years, Dunaway, Crane and Mezzalingua share big ideas and hopes for the future.
The future is bright; MPH Rising is going to give campus some much-needed changes — changes that lead further away from the crisis two years ago.
“When I came on board a few years ago, people were talking about whether the school would survive,” Dunaway said. “I don’t even want to hear that. I’m thinking about what the school is going to look like 100 years from now, 200 years from now. It will still be here; it will just look different.”
Manlius Pebble Hill is here to stay.