Conte Middle School, a 95-year-old, four-story building is hardly an ideal elementary school. It was found inadequate to be a high school and a middle school. Its restricted site offers very little outdoor play space for children whose ages range from 5 to 12. Conte is surrounded by busy streets that are hazardous to young children. In l987, I witnessed a car hitting a middle school student on East Main Street while I was waiting to pick up my son after school.
Even after $30 million were spent to upgrade it, Conte would compare very unfavorably with the lovely new elementary school in Williamstown. We can have just as nice a school if we want it. My first teaching job was in a school like Conte, and one of the most successful essay assignments I gave was "Do we need a new school?" The students were passionate about how nice it would be to go to a bright, clean, new school instead of the tired dated structure they were confined to.
In all the arguments for the proposed project, I never hear that the welfare of the children is the first consideration. It's all about getting that money from the state and filling up the downtown.
It is not the job of the schools to fix the downtown or to boost the local economy. It is to develop the minds and hearts of the children so that they can grow up to be happy, self-sufficient people and good citizens. It is to develop their intellectual, physical and social abilities. It's important that they have room to play team games outdoors, that they feel safe walking to and around the school, that they feel that the community cares about them and their future. When they find themselves in a bright happy surrounding, their spirits are lifted. This is especially true if the children come from impoverished or troubled homes. School should be a haven for them.
The committee that decided on Conte never tried to find a good site for a new school in the part of the city served by Sullivan School. They did not even look at land the city owns in that area. They handed the consultants a set of problematic sites, none of which was good enough for an expensive school to be constructed on. To build a $30 million school on a leftover free site is just foolish. There is empty land on the east side. If the city could spend $600,000 for the architectural consultants, you would think they could spend some cash on a good site. A good new school would attract home building in its neighborhood and would increase the value of taxable land in the city and the number of home owning citizens. It would probably boost the economy much better than the Conte project ever could.
Personally, I think that if we cannot build a brand-new school, it would be better to spend the money to repair and enlarge Sullivan School, which is an attractive building in a quiet location next to a playing field, than to send the children to Conte. The spokespeople assure us the children will all be bused and will protected by security personnel (police) at Conte. These measures will make Conte quite expensive to operate and will make the school much like the "prison" that one of the speakers at the community meeting last year called it.
Before Conte closed, I visited the basement cafeteria: what a disgusting area it was! That's where the kindergarten and first grades will be, and they tell us, the cafeteria will still be there, too! I cannot imagine how they are going to turn that area into an inspiring place for little children.
The architects seem to have persuaded the school building committee that they can work miracles, make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, or a coach and horses out of a pumpkin and rats. No doubt, the old building is a dignified structure that was the latest thing in l915, but our children need the latest thing in 2013. If we are going to spend $30 million of North Adams and Massachusetts taxpayers' money on it, we should get a brand-new school and keep Conte's building for some other purpose.
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