By Nick Grabbe
Published on June 04, 2010
Mark's Meadow School in North Amherst will close for good in two weeks, but art created by hundreds of current and former students, staff and parents will be a memorial to the learning and growing that's taken place there over five decades.
The school's Community Tile Project was to be dedicated Thursday. The art covers all four sides of five 8-foot pillars outside the school, said art teacher Diane Travis. The tiles were handmade from clay that was rolled, glazed and fired at the school, she said.
The tiles will create a permanent installation that will remain when the Mark's Meadow building is reused by its owner, the University of Massachusetts. There are plans for extensive renovation of the building for use by the UMass Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning in several years.
The Amherst School Committee's decision to close Mark's Meadow was very controversial a year ago. The committee wanted to save money by consolidating elementary students in three buildings, since the enrollment has declined from 1,526 in 2000-01 to 1,268 this year. The committee also wanted to eliminate the disparity between the schools in the percentage of children from low-income families.
But there was much opposition to the planned closure from parents who valued the smaller size of Mark's Meadow, the feeling of community, and the leadership of Principal Nick Yaffe. The School Committee also came under fire because it failed to get UMass to pay, as part of the Mark's Meadow closure plan, for the approximately $675,000 it costs to educate children living in tax-exempt housing but attending public schools. There were questions about whether the closure would save as much money as expected.
It appears that much of community outrage over the change has dissipated as redistricting plans have fallen into place. Extensive debate over redrawing the maps showing which student attends which school resulted in most of the current Mark's Meadow students staying together at Wildwood School next year. And, after the school's principal resigned last month, Yaffe was appointed to the position, and Linda Gianesin, a guidance counselor at Mark's Meadow, will be assistant principal at Wildwood. Several teachers are also moving there next fall.
Parent Tracy Hightower, quoted last year as saying that closing Mark's Meadow would "rip up the community," said at last week's open house at Wildwood, that many Mark's Meadow parents are happy Yaffe will continue to be their children's principal.
She noted that Yaffe is the most senior elementary principal in Amherst and praised Yaffe's compassion and ability to work with a team. "It feels like he's bringing a piece of Mark's Meadow here," Hightower said.
She said the school district "has done a great job" organizing the transition, offering virtual tours of the buildings, organized by the technology teachers.
Parent Ludmilla Pavlova said at a School Committee meeting on the Mark's Meadow closure a year ago that there was "no thorough and careful analysis of how this decision affects the school system."
This week, she said that Yaffe's transfer to Wildwood is "unqualified good news." But she said she "will wait and see how the school year goes" before deciding on the best option for her son, who will be in second grade at Wildwood next year.
"The community aspect of it will be lost," Pavlova said. "In the rush to close, there wasn't enough understood about the value the community brought to the town and UMass." For example, she works at UMass and had been able to walk to the school, but it will be more difficult to get to Wildwood because her family has only one car.
Pavlova is also concerned that Wildwood was built for the open-classroom model, and plans to advocate for changing the way the space is used, she said.
At last week's open house at Wildwood, Yaffe spoke to the parents and children, saying he prefers that everyone call him "Nick." He acknowledged that "when you go to a new place, you're often a little nervous." Yaffe asked children entering each grade to stand up, and everyone applauded as they did.
He introduced some of the teachers. Third-grade teacher Sally Crawford said that although it's been "a difficult and tumultuous time," the new students will enrich the school. Sixth-grade teacher Maury Bohan said she's been a Wildwood student and parent as well. Librarian Elaine Donoghue said, "I'm sure you won't run out of things to read."
Yaffe arranged for different age groups to tour the school together.
"Next year will be a great time to make new friends, and tonight is a good time to start," he said.
He led one of the tours himself. When the group got to the locked school offices, Yaffe said, "I'm not the principal yet, so I don't have a key." He said he'll continue the Mark's Meadow practice of having a letter box outside the office where students can put notes to him.
Brenda Bushouse, who is moving to the Wildwood district from Belchertown, said she was impressed that class sizes are smaller than in her children's previous school.
Meg Kroeplin's son is at Fort River and will be a third-grader at Wildwood next year. She said she was impressed with Yaffe.
"It seemed like he could pull all the kids together and make everybody comfortable," she said after the open house. "It felt like I was joining a community, and that felt really nice."
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.