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Kensington seniors' homecoming brief, bittersweet Renovations kept class out of school for 2 years

A lot has changed at the former Kensington High School building.

It had been two years since the Frederick Law Olmsted School Class of 2012 occupied the art deco-style school building at 319 Suffolk St. However, on Thursday, the 44 graduating seniors got the chance to bid a fond farewell to their former haunt during commencement ceremonies at the newly renovated building.

"They went to school in this building for two years, in their freshman and sophomore years. Then they moved out for the renovation," said Michael Gruber, principal of the newly christened Frederick Law Olmsted School at Kensington.

The $20 million renovation was part of the Buffalo School District's $1.4 billion "Joint Schools Reconstruction Project."

"This is one of the three Art Decco buildings in Buffalo," said Gruber.

"They kept it to its [original] grandeur. They redid the whole building. They redid the gym, the cafeteria, the classrooms. They added computer labs, science labs, a music wing, an addition to the back. They even landscaped the back like a Frederick Law Olmsted [designed] park," Gruber added.

Thursday's ceremony marked the first and the last time that the graduating seniors would get to enjoy the renovated auditorium, with its restored Art Deco lighting fixtures and molding, while still official students of the school.

As they received their diplomas, Janette Schell MacRitchie, a graduate of the Kensington High School class of 1941, handed them their diplomas. I used to do a lot of things on the stage, because I was in all the plays and things," MacRitchie recalled, just before the start of Thursday's ceremony.

Other alumni from more than 50 years ago attended the ceremony, as well, and expressed their excitement at seeing the restored building.

"So we're excited to see this school again," said Richard Mauer. "It was a great place."

While the building was being renovated, the students attended the old School 11.

"They had hoped to come back for part of this year, but the renovation took so long. So they're here for their graduation," said Gruber.

Gruber said the first graduating class of Frederick Law Olmsted School at Kensington had only 44 students because administrators deliberately set out to start small. The Olmsted School was originally a prekindergarten to eighth-grade building.

"But the parents always wanted a high school. So back when Dr. [James] Williams was superintendent, the Kensington building was the only one empty," said Gruber.

The old Kensington High School was closed in 2003 as the result of poor academic performance and increasing violence at the school. The building, which saw its first graduating class in 1938, was briefly the location for Buffalo's Opportunity Program, an alternative school. The building also served as a swing school for students transferred from other school buildings that were being renovated.

"When we moved in here, we started out small, because we knew that we'd have to move out of the building for the renovation. As we move back in, the classes will get larger and we hope to have a student body of 850," said Gruber.

Also attending Thursday's commencement ceremony were interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon, who addressed the graduating class, and keynote speaker Kim Beldon Grant, business development manager of Applied Sciences Group.