Study circles are voice of reason in the middle school debate
June 19, 2007
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Crunch time has arrived.
After more than a year of political wrangling, meeting after meeting by committee after committee, tours and pleas, it's time for city and school officials to act on the future of the Portsmouth Middle School.
And the direction is now clear. The current school on Parrott Avenue must be renovated.
Last week, Portsmouth Listens released reports from 16 middle school study circles composed of 135 city residents. (Two of the groups were made up of city high school students.) These residents spent more than 1,400 hours delving into the city's online middle school archives, poring over other written and online materials and meeting numerous times. A number of them started the process convinced that the city's property on Jones Avenue was the best choice, and subsequently changed their minds.
When the process was done, 13 of the 16 groups agreed that the city would best be served by keeping the middle school downtown on Parrott Avenue.
The 14 study circle reports received by the Herald by press time, which are reprinted in full in a special section of today's paper, make compelling reading for anyone interested in the future not only of this school project but of Portsmouth itself.
So, for example, we learn that the groups' No. 1 priority is not schoolbooks, not middle school configuration, but the environment. Report after report cited the fact that the Jones Avenue site would eliminate more than 30 acres of city-owned open space — among the last natural areas in Portsmouth. With a nod toward the global warming fight, many felt it would be irresponsible to site a middle school outside the city proper and thus require longer bus and vehicle drive time. A downtown school would encourage students to walk and bike, is located close to the city's many cultural venues and is compatible with the city's master plan, which calls for a "livable, walkable city."
Many group members also said a renovated middle school is a more fiscally sound decision. With city and school population in flux and predictions calling for fewer students in years to come, the groups said the Parrott Avenue site offers more flexibility. Not to be only penny-wise, however, many said any final project must adhere to the middle school "educational narrative" — a kind of preteen instructional philosophy designed by architects Team Design, as well as teachers and administrators. While both sites can pass this litmus test, Parrott Avenue combines both educational and cost effectiveness.
A number of groups felt the Team Design estimates for Parrott Avenue may be inflated, and wisely suggested the city seek other bids — particularly from firms that specialize in historic preservation.
Now the reports are in the hands of the City Council and School Board, which discussed them for the first time at a joint meeting Monday night.
While councilors have been split, the School Board clearly has been leaning toward a new school on Jones Avenue. That's understandable. There's probably not a superintendent or school board around that would opt for renovation instead of new construction. But it's time now for them to put aside their own biases and listen to these voices of reason.
The evidence the study circles have compiled is conclusive and overwhelming. It's time for the talk to stop and the action to begin. Let's get on with it and renovate the middle school.
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