[OPINION]: Middle School Waves Must Become Gentle Swells

Last fall, Coleytown Middle School was closed due to mold. Those 6th and 7th graders were moved to Bedford Middle School, and 8th graders to Staples High, for the remainder of the school year.

In December the Board of Education endorsed a plan for all 6th grade students to be educated in Westport’s elementary schools, starting with the 2019-20 academic year. The plan included placing 14 modular classrooms at those 5 elementary schools. To implement this “K-6 plan,” the BOE requested $4 million from the town.

On February 7 the Board of Finance voted 7-0 to authorize $1 million, to place 6 temporary modular classrooms at Bedford Middle School. All Westport 6th to 8th grade students would be educated there, on an interim basis  (the “6-8 plan”).  The following night, the Representative Town Meeting voted 28-3 to confirm the Board of Finance’s $1 million appropriation recommendation.

In the wake of the RTM vote, the Board of Ed sent a letter to all Westport families. They pledged to move forward, reiterating their commitment to  “continuing to deliver the high quality education that our students and community deserve.”

The Board of Ed thanked “the many community members who participated in this process for their engagement and insights, and to the members of the funding bodies and boards for their time and diligence. We could not have done this without our superintendent, school administrators, teachers and staff who will continue to deliver the superb academic programs that are a hallmark of Westport schools.”

Some residents favored the K-6 plan. Others supported the 6-8 plan. Some issues remain unresolved, such as whether Coleytown Middle School can be reopened, and if so when. Passions are high on all sides.

“06880” reader Gery Grove writes:

I grew up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by politics. Yet in my 6 years in Westport, which began when my oldest daughter was ready to enter kindergarten, I did not take much time to follow our local political process. As for so many, this changed drastically when our schools faced a crisis.

Accidentally and very hesitantly, I became many people’s “poster girl for K-6.” Make no mistake: I never wanted anything for my 5th grade daughter other than for her to move to Coleytown Middle School. She was excited to say goodbye to elementary school and spread her wings; to try new classes and be in the school play. Like any parent observing the changes in their oldest child, I wanted that just as much as anyone here in this town did. And then the school closed.

Coleytown Middle School is closed due to mold.

My support of the 6th grade staying in the elementary school has been in lockstep with the Board of Ed’s suggestion that it is the emotionally safest place for them to be in a crisis. I am a pediatric RN who has worked in this town, and in many schools with many children and families. If your child is 7 now, there is a chance I gave him or her their earliest vaccinations. I have been looking out for them and seeking to do no harm since I arrived here.

The ages of 10-14 are some of the most sacred and precarious ages. I believe kids need a protected experience during that time to properly learn and flourish. Yes, they need independence, but in a safe and nurturing learning space.

From my personal point of view, this gigantic school we just created for them will struggle to do that.  The mission of the parents going into that school must find ways to support those who will surely need it. “Kids are resilient” was stated over and over again by members of our town funding bodies. Indeed, some kids are resilient. And some struggle to kick to the surface.

The political process that unfurled in front of all of us, and much of the behind- the-scenes posturing and tribalism, has made us “a town divided.” In any crisis where 2 paths unfold and you don’t know which leads you to the greatest peril, there will be a difference of opinion.

But respect for each side’s point of view helps people navigate that path together. Heartbreakingly for many of us, that is not what happened here. How in the world did people allow the future of their neighbors’ and friends’ children to become an opportunity for brinksmanship? And how in the world did members of our funding bodies allow themselves to fall into the trap of choosing sides?

Modular classrooms will be placed at Bedford Middle School next school year. All Westport 6th through 8th graders will attend the school.

I received a respectful and thoughtful call from a member of the RTM in a neighboring district this weekend. She took time to explain the votes of the funding bodies to me in incredible detail, including the way precedent had been set here in town, and how the 4-3 BOE vote set the wheels of doubt in motion.

I explained to her that if the members of the BOF had taken the time to present their position differently – not about what is best for anyone else’s 6th grade child as so many did, but what is operationally most feasible for the town to execute, and the most sensible way to allocate funds – then surely the pitchforks would have been lowered.

We all liked a 6th grade academy. But when a rational argument was placed before us about why it was not feasible, we swallowed the bitter pill that our options were reduced yet again.

Now many of us have to enter this school.  We are concerned for our kids. We feel like it is an experiment with a very uncertain outcome. We are wary of the way this has come together and what culture it will create for them, on top of the stresses of middle school.

There is a rough undercurrent created when people in town, including elected officials, look at this experience as having winners and losers. In the end, the only people who stand to lose out with that idea are the children. I hope that between now and August, the administration, the BOE and the funding bodies can work together to make sure that school is emotionally and socially safe for the children inside it.

There is still work to do. Like so many, I can only hope that the waves that have been made during this school year can reduce themselves to the gentle swells of everyday life again.

Let us learn from our mistakes as a community, as we decide what to do next with Coleytown Middle School.

9 responses to “[OPINION]: Middle School Waves Must Become Gentle Swells

  1. “Waves”, “crisis”, “tribalism”, “pitchforks”, “6th grade academy”, “undercurrent”, “experiment”, “wheels of doubt”, “heartbreak”, “sacred”, “safe”, “bitter pill”. .. I’ve read this 3x and I can’t see where these words come from nor how to make sense of the situation.

  2. I agree whole-heartedly with what Gery has written. Twice the BoE voted down the 6-8 option. And last I read, it only needs to be a majority rule decision for a motion to pass. These are elected officials yet we allowed an entirely different entity to make their decision for them. And I never heard ONCE, not one time, during the RTM or BoF meetings – anyway say that the number of modulars could NOT be in place by August. I heard, that they FELT that they couldn’t be. They FEARED that they couldn’t be. But no one said that they were CERTAIN that they couldn’t be or that it COULDN’T be done based on facts. But what we DO know, what IS fact – is that BMS, as is, is not working. And this is without CMS’ 8th grade in play. So factor that in and just sit with for a second. That school, next year will ripe for emotional neglect, physical challenges and sub-par academics. Why? Because it was not built or designed to house that many children. Kids are eating lunches UNDER THE STAIRWELL. They don’t use their lockers because they don’t have time to get from one end of the hall to the other. The stairs are jammed packed and a student needs to bring their A game just to navigate the school. It is unfathomable to me that we are putting our children in this situation. We pride ourselves on our schools being of “blue ribbon” quality. Well guess what, the minute we ask our children to run an emotional and physical gauntlet the second that they step foot through those doors every morning – then the only “blue ribbon” we have earned is being penny wise and pound foolish. Because what is going on at our middle school RIGHT NOW – is not based on uncertainty or fear…. but fact.

  3. Very well said Gery

  4. When CMS was closed, the mold had been remediated. Read the last Hygenix report posted on the BOE website. The school can and should be repaired and upgraded and will be ready by August 2020. Read the CMS Task Force Report on the BOE Website. There is a nationwide shortage of new portables. Google and read the troubles other CT schools had obtaining portables this fall. BMS already has zoning approval and electrical connections for 6 portables; the other 5 schools have no approvals. The BOF and RTM votes are not surprising given a divided BOE and the facts above.

    • Elise Russi is spot on with the facts she presents above. I encourage everyone who is interested and engaged with this issue to read the public reports about CMS as well as information regarding portables, particularly on the EPA website.

      Visit the link below for District Updates on CMS Facility and Related Educational Issues:

      https://cms.westportps.org/general/cms-facility-updates

      Visit the following links for EPA information and a news article about portable classrooms:

      https://www.epa.gov/iaq-schools/maintain-portable-classrooms-part-indoor-air-quality-design-tools-schools

      http://www.invw.org/2014/05/07/portables/

    • With all do respect Elise – no one knows if the school will be ready to go by 2020. No one. They could get in there and determine that it’s a teardown. So I fail to see how we are moving forward with a plan that we have no idea about the timeline. A Mega School is NOT the answer. A 16 year old girl killed herself by jumping off of the Danbury Mall parking structure yesterday. She was bullied in school. Study after study has said that overcrowding a student body is a recipe for disaster. It leads to more anxiety, stress, bullying, and suicide. And if portables aren’t available then this town needs to come up with another answer. Redistricting comes to mind. Because a Mega School isn’t it.

  5. One of the primary reasons I repeatedly heard from the BoF and RTM for why they voted down the K-6 plan is because it’s unrealistic. The plan only works if 14 portable classrooms are ready to use by the time school opens in September. A presentation concerning the timing and implementation of these portables at a recent BoE meeting left many people with low confidence this plan would work. With realistic and informed opinions, I feel the BoF and RTM members reached their conclusions to fund what would be the inevitable and most likely to succeed solution to house students for the Westport Public School 2019-2020 school year.

    The true victory here is for CMS, the entire school community, and our town. There is now a collective and collaborative push to fast-track common sense and long-term, sorely needed repairs, along with a town wide commitment to reopen and reoccupy CMS asap (but no later than August 2020) in order to restore our 8 building, 2 middle school system.

    I have faith that everyone is trying their best to do what they feel is right, based on the best information available, which is often imperfect, complex, and challenging to interpret. This is a very difficult problem and it’s causing a lot of heartache and stress for everyone. We need a parallel path forward for both CMS and the 2019-2020 school year.

    Also please remember, portables were promised to Bedford at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year to help with our space issues when we combined with CMS. The portables never came. We need to do better this time and be sure BMS has the portables it needs by Fall. If seeking state funding puts that schedule at risk, we should not seek funding.

  6. Hi GiGi:

    The CMS Task Force does not think CMS is a teardown or even a major rebuild. Please read their report. The CMS Task Force was composed of Westport residents who are architects, civil engineers or mechanical engineers who have had experience with other school and public buildings in Westport (including Staples, BMS and Kings Highway) and other Fairfield County towns. They looked inside the exterior wall test bores, had classroom and hallway ceilings opened up, plus walls cut open. They recommended straightforward short-term repairs and a phased long term upgrade program. The short term repairs and part of the long term upgrade fits the August 2020 timeline.

  7. Barbara Greenspan

    I hate to stir the pot and I no longer have children in the Westport Schools, but I do live in the Coleytown area. Has anyone looked at the elementary school? If there was plenty of money, I’d vote to demolish both schools (the elementary and the middle school) and build a great campus for the two schools!

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