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'The people make the place.' Burlington High School seniors graduate from Macy's

Seven students pose for a picture in front of books in a high school library.
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
Burlington High School seniors, pictured here on Thursday, June 6, talked about their experience going to high school in a converted Macy's department store from the BHS library — where dishware was once sold.

During the summer of 2020, PCBs, a class of toxic chemicals, were detected at elevated levels throughout Burlington High School, and the state condemned the campus. After a few months of planning, district officials came up with a solution that made international news.

In just ten weeks, they converted a vacant department store in the Queen City’s downtown into a makeshift high school.

Now, four years later, the students who first stepped onto the escalator in the former Macy’s building as freshmen are graduating. And while attending class in a defunct department store may sound pretty dystopian, for BHS’s class of 2024, that was just high school.

“Obviously it'll be different than other people's high school experiences,” said BHS senior Elliot Laramee. “But like, for me, I don't really feel, like, bad that I ended up here. Because I just never experienced anything different than this.”

It’s not that students at BHS aren’t keenly aware of how strange their high school experience has been. It would be hard to miss all the reminders of their temporary school’s former life. There’s a giant escalator in the middle of the building — which students said is often broken — and sports trophies are on view in former jewelry display cases. Some of the old signage is still up from when things like handbags and jeans were on sale, and students eat at the so-called "Michael Kors Cafe."

Glowing text above white shelving reads "Michael Kors CAFE." Buffet counters sit in front of the shelves.
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
The cafeteria in the downtown Burlington High School campus is located in the former Michael Kors section of a Macy's department store.

But over time, they’ve gotten used to it. Brooks DeShaw said at first it was strange to go to school in a place where she once went Christmas shopping. Classrooms didn’t have doors when students first arrived, and the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling.

“But I feel like I've adapted to it,” she said.

If Burlington’s seniors have adapted to their makeshift home — which students will be attending for at least two more years — it’s also partly because the building has adapted to them. Classrooms do now have doors, and many of the partitions that section off classes go all the way to the ceiling.

Staff and students alike also often talk about something that might, on first blush, appear pretty trivial — the decorations on the walls. Rowen Clarke still remembers when staff first put up these big vinyl decorations that say "Burlington," in all capital letters, at the top of the escalator.

“I was pretty hype when they put those up. I thought they were, like, really cool,” he said. “Because they were the first, like, 'Burlington' thing we had. So yeah, I thought that was pretty cool. And added a lot of schoolness to the school.”

In the intervening years, student artwork, posters and athletic banners have accumulated on the walls.

“It's unfortunate, and we can, like, laugh about the Michael Kors cafe, but you know, the lunch ladies are there every day with a smile, serving food. There is that. The people make the place.”

Medea Daly

Medea Daly recently took pictures for a project in different places throughout the school, in the exact same spots as she had when the downtown campus first opened. She said she was struck by how lifeless the building seemed then. And in general, Daly said she’s thankful for all the work staff and faculty have put into making the building feel like a home.

“It's unfortunate, and we can, like, laugh about the Michael Kors cafe, but you know, the lunch ladies are there every day with a smile, serving food. There is that,” she said. “The people make the place.”

Students have also leaned into the absurdity of their situation. In the fall of 2021, BHS seniors asked Lauren McBride, the principal at the time, if they could hold their own Macy’s Day Parade on the Friday before Thanksgiving break. She agreed. And every year since, seniors have kept up the tradition, complete with balloons, costumes and themed floats built from rolling janitorial carts.

“It's honestly a blur because I'm wearing earplugs because the drums are so loud, and I don't know anything that's going on behind me,” said senior Vivian Halladay, who has been in the drumline every year. “It’s one of my favorite things we have at the school. It's so much fun.”

Students were matter-of-fact about the very real drawbacks of going to school in a building that was never meant as a space for learning. There basically are hardly any windows, for example, and the fluorescent lighting can make it hard to concentrate — particularly if you’re recovering from multiple concussions.

“Trying to go back to learning in a school where there's really, really harsh lighting, and just getting crippling headaches is not a good thing,” Halladay said.

But on the whole, students said that as much as they liked to joke about how bizarre their high school years had been, it had also helped bind them together.

“It's not been, you know, great or perfect, but it's been — it's been very good,” Halladay said.

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).