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From the Deputy Publisher: Backpack Journalists


Published March 17, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 17, 2021 at 11:42 a.m.

  • Cat Cutillo

When photojournalist Cat Cutillo showed up to cover the opening of Burlington High School's new downtown campus, she never imagined her images would appear on BuzzFeed and on the websites for People magazine and the UK-based Daily Mail.

Cutillo, a regular contributor to Seven Days' parenting magazine, Kids VT, was excited about the assignment when writer Alison Novak invited her along. What would a high school inside a former Macy's look like?

To document the BHS event, Cutillo toted two Canon DSLR 5D Mark IV cameras — one with a long lens and one with a wide lens, so she wouldn't have to switch lenses. She used a GoPro camera mounted on a selfie stick to shoot video. "It creates kind of a steady-cam feel," she explained.

Cutillo alternated between filming and taking photos. In all, she spent two hours at the school, peeking into rooms and documenting "visual surprises," such as designer Michael Kors branding in the cafeteria and people taking selfies in front of "the Levi's wall."

As soon as it was published, Novak's story quickly became the most popular thing on the Seven Days website. Cutillo's BHS video went up on the paper's YouTube channel, where it has been viewed more than 27,000 times.

Soon Cutillo was getting requests from national outlets eager to license her photos — images that convey both the excitement of this innovative and hastily improvised space and the pandemic weirdness of socially distanced desks inside windowless classrooms.

Her visuals complement Novak's text, which recorded the hopeful reactions of students, teachers and administrators who've been doing their best to cope during this challenging year.

"It's really cool to see," senior Ariel Felcan said of the makeshift campus. "I'm excited to spend the rest of the school year here."

Novak, the managing editor of Kids VT, has chronicled the BHS saga for Seven Days. Working as a news reporter on the education beat since the start of the pandemic, she's produced roughly 40 stories, mostly about K-12 instruction. The former elementary school teacher has covered the sudden closure of the high school's New North End campus last fall due to PCB contamination, the BHS principal's recent resignation and the impact of remote learning on its students. This week Novak dug into the history of Burlington's first downtown campus, Edmunds High School.

In "School at the Center of Things," alumni now in their seventies, eighties and nineties recall cruising their cars down pre-pedestrian Church Street and working at Woolworth's for 35 cents an hour. Ruth Wallman, class of 1960, offered an olfactory memory of the former high school building: a combination of "wax and dust and probably some dirty socks."

That might smell like heaven to students who haven't seen each other for a year.